Incognito Press

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Is traditional publishing the new vanity publishing?

Posted by E on August 27, 2012

Normally I don’t tend to highlight articles, even some of the juicy controversy surrounding Amazon vs the Apple, Big Six et al collusion. But this is far too interesting not to share with you folks.

This article written by Bernard Starr, professor at CUNY, came out this past week in The Huffington Post, and as I read it my neck started cramping from all the nodding in agreement that it provoked. Yes, I too have had friends who have shelved viable manuscripts because agents or publishers refused to look at them, instead of trying to make a commercial profit from something that had taken them lots of sweat, time (in some cases, years) and grief to write. Even when confronted with the reality of being able to both monetize your career AND reach a willing audience, many of my writer friends have decided to “hold out” for a publisher – and admitted that they just wanted to be published by a trad press, period – even if their print run was in the hundreds and they never saw a dime.

This is absurd.

It’s time to peel back the blindfold and look reality in the eye. No matter which side of the publishing precipice you happen to fall on, this article will give you a lot of food for thought. Yes, it’s provocative and may rub some readers the wrong way, but if it wasn’t controversial would you be reading it? And just in case the Huffington Post page disappears or gets archived, as it so oftens in online journalism, I’m going to reproduce it here.

The old vanity publishing offered authors who could not attract the interest of a traditional publisher an opportunity to get their  books published. The process was costly and often required that the author purchase large quantities of books. According to legend, garages throughout America are warehousing these dust-gathering volumes. Some so-called vanity books were written by competent writers who just couldn’t find a way into the mainstream; others were exercises in ego building — the books were sold or given away free to family members, friends and colleagues. These authors were willing to pay the price to boast, “I’m a published author.”

Commentators on the current upheaval in publishing have observed that many authors desperately seek a traditional  publisher when self-publishing would serve them far better. Traditional publishing has thus become, in many instances, the vanity choice. Does it make sense?

The new world of self-publishing has little in common with the old vanity publishing, but  for many writers it still bears the taint of vanity.  Self-publishing has not only democratized publishing, it has opened up the opportunity for authors to publish at low or no cost, own all the rights, control the pricing and timetable for publishing, and get their books listed for sale and distribution on major outlets and platforms — e.g. Amazon, kindle,  nook, other e-readers, Google and more. Royalties for self-published books can range from thirty to eighty percent (depending on ancillary services that are selected) compared to the 71/2 to 15 percent in traditional publishing. And if you are adept at Internet marketing, you can reach large targeted audiences for your books.

Fact is that authors no longer need a publisher. And more and more writers  are awakening to the realization that if  you are not a high-profile author who can command large sales, a traditional publisher will do little for you beyond  editing and printing your book. While it’s true that they will also distribute it to the waning number of brick-and-mortar bookstores — self-published books are not usually available in bookstores — the number that actually land on the shelves is surprisingly small. And the argument that self-published books are not widely reviewed in mainstream publications loses steam when you realize that only a tiny percent of traditionally published books are reviewed at all. Add to that the growing number of  prestigious venues that now review self-published books.  Publishers Weekly devotes a quarterly supplement to reviews of self-published books and  Kirkus  Reviews, as well, offers self- published authors the opportunity to have their books independently reviewed.  Then there are companies springing up like Blue Inc., where self-published authors can pay a small fee for unbiased reviews  that are posted on the  web.

Can you count on  a traditional publisher to substantially market your book? A prominent literary agent recently told me that unless an author receives a hefty advance of  $100,000 or more most publishers will do virtually no promotion, leaving it to authors to create and exploit their own platforms via social media and networking connections, workshops and webcasts.  So when you go the traditional-publishing route, you may well find yourself self-publishing without the benefits of self-publishing.

Yet many writers who would do just fine with self-publishing — and build a following — still refuse that choice; they continue to pursue a” real publisher.”  My friend Mike (not his real name — I don’t want to embarrass him) has been sitting on a completed  non-fiction manuscript for the last three years while going through several agents and running the manuscript past numerous editors.  They all agreed that he’s an outstanding writer, but publishers rejected his manuscript because he doesn’t have a platform or relevant credentials for his current book. Mike says he would be happy to publish with any traditional publisher, even if this meant  a small print run, no publicity and high pricing. The fact that his sales are likely to be low — thus creating a bad “track record” when he goes to publish another book — hasn’t deterred him from the wish to have a “name” publisher’s imprint.

I finally realized that Mike was representative of the new quest for vanity publishing. These writers  are willing to forego the  benefits of self-publishing for the unshakable belief in the “prestige” of  signing on with a “real publisher.”

If Mike would shed his prejudice, he couldn’t help but notice that an increasing number of successful traditionally published authors are choosing to self-publish. Barry Eisler’s rejection of a $500,000  advance to self-publish has encouraged other writers to take a fresh look at self-publishing. Amanda Hocking’s phenomenal success with self- publishing has had  a similar effect.

And Mike should listen to Theresa Ragan’s story.  For nineteen years she was mostly a stay-at-home mom raising four children — all the while penning romance novels.  But she got nowhere with a few agents and was turned down over a hundred times by publishers. Although she knew about self-publishing she dismissed it as a vanity club. In 2010, while surfing the web for a  job to help pay the bills, she stumbled on an article by a successful self-published author which prompted her to give it a shot (“what do I have to lose?”).  She hooked up with CreateSpace, the self-publishing arm of  Amazon.com and self -published her first book in March 2011 in both paperback and e-book formats. Within the first two months she was stunned by the sale of over two thousand  copies — and the sales continued to rise. To date, she has self-published four romance and two thriller novels with sales exceeding three hundred and fifty thousand copies. Theresa expects to cross the million dollar mark in royalties by March 2013. And the good news doesn’t stop there. Several top-line publishers are pursuing her.Thomas and Mercer, Amazon’s “traditional”  mystery and thriller line, will now republish her two thrillers. In my interview with Theresa Ragan on August 21, 2012, she said that prior to venturing into self-publishing, “I would have gratefully signed with any traditional publisher with no advance and a six percent royalty.” Lucky for Theresa that all the publishers passed on her.

A. J.  McDonald, communications manager at Lulu, another leading self-publishing company, related similar success stories. Lulu has also attracted five formerly traditionally published bestselling authors who are now self-publishing and still making the best seller lists — with greater royalties and  total control of all the rights.

Will the bulk of self-published authors match Theresa Ragan’s spectacular success?  Of course not — and many don’t even have that intention. If you do, you must first write a marketable book, one that will appeal to easily identified readers. In fiction, that often means mystery, suspense, and romance; so-called literary fiction tends to do less well, since the audience is much smaller. In the nonfiction world, books on subjects with a niche market — cooking, nature, hobbies, music, spirituality and travel, to name just a few — fare best.  But regardless of your topic or the size of your potential readership, the new world of publishing offers an unprecedented and unlimited opportunity to forge your own destiny.

First- time authors and those struggling to find a publisher should seriously consider self-publishing. Keep in mind that self-publishing does not close the door on traditional publishing. Agents and publishers  are cherry- picking successful self-published books for traditional publishing.  And when they do they will roll out the red carpet, offer an advance and a marketing plan — a different experience than a hundred rejections.

Think about how much you are willing to sacrifice for a “real publisher.” Is the  “prestige” of a traditional publisher’s imprint mostly illusory in the context of the new world of publishing? Ask what  traditional publishing will do for you in the long run if you don’t get effective distribution and publicity. Which platform is more likely to bring you sizable sales? Which will help you build a large following  for marketing future publications?  These are critical questions that deserve serious attention, especially if you are planning a career in writing.

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