Thursday, March 23, 2006

Is it Vanity Press or Publishing?

I inadvertently stepped on some toes in a writers' loop I belong to today. Someone posted an article praising Xlibris as a publishing house and recommending it.

I am always alarmed at these type of "endorsements." First, I am suspicious that they are coming from the supposed "publishing house" itself or from someone paid to flack it. Second, I worry that the endorsement will entice inexperienced writers who don't have enough knowledge of the publishing world to understand that not all operations claiming to be "publishers" are legitimate.

Let's start with listing the three types of operations. There are vanity presses, POD operations and legitimate publishing houses. Hopefully this blog will contain enough information to help a newbie writer distinguish among the three.

The fastest way to tell a vanity press from a legitimate publishing house is to look at which way the money is flowing (the business model). Legitimate publishers make their money from the sales of books to the public via bookstores, libraries, etc. Vanity presses make their money from the fees paid to them by writers. Those fees may take various forms. Frequently, the vanity press claims the book just needs a little editing before publishing and socks the writer with a large editing fee. Other fees are for illustrations, the printing itself or the marketing and distribution after the book is produced.

Vanity presses prey on people who are desperate to see their books in a bound format or who are trying to shortcut the process to publication. Unfortunately, the vanity presses have no incentive to be selective in the work they "publish." They get paid even if the writer never sells one book. The result is that the biggest source of revenue for writers--the library market--is generally closed to writers publishing through a vanity press. Most libraries will not purchase or even accept a free copy of a book published through a vanity press. Hello? That's a big clue. If a library refuses a free copy when they hear the publisher's name, you have a problem. Some kind librarians will accept the book, but have the writer sign a form permitting the library to dispose of it in any way they see fit. As soon as the writer leaves the premises, the book goes into the "recyle bin" or the "sell at the next library sale bin."

There are times when writers have entirely legitimate reasons for paying to publish a book themselves. I'm thinking of a book which may be on a subject matter so arcane that there will be a very small audience for it, giving it limited commercial value. Or perhaps the book is intended as a keepsake for family members. In those cases, the writer can go to a POD (print-on-demand) operation.

POD is a technology which permits the printing of a limited number of books using a digital copying process. This allows a print run of as small as one book instead of the print runs of thousands that traditional publishers do. A POD operation makes no claims to edit or to market your book. They simply provide the printing and binding for a fee that is much less than a vanity press' fee. Most writers utilizing the services of a POD operation understand and accept at the outset that this printing is for other than commercial purposes. There are a few writers who believe so strongly in their books that they have paid the POD fees and then tried to market the product themselves. On very rare occasions they have succeeded.

Finally, we have the traditional and legitimate publishing houses. These operations make their revenue from sales, not fees. They are, therefore, forced to be selective in the material they accept for publication. Frequently, their decisions are not based entirely upon the QUALITY of the work; they are concerned with the likelihood that they can sell sufficient copies to make a profit. This means that a quality product is not enough; there must also be a MARKET. The Internet is filled with stories of excellent writers who struggled for years to get accepted by a traditional publisher. The key is that the publisher has an expectation that the manuscripts it accepts will make money.

My post on the writers' loop got an angry response from a writer saying that PublishAmerica does not expect a fee upfront--just for marketing--and that all writers today are expected to market. I'll talk about that tomorrow.



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