Monday, November 16, 2009

Lies Told By the Self-Publishing Industry

One of the many obstacles facing newbie authors is that of overcoming their own impatience to be published. Lying in wait to use writers' hunger to see their works in print against them is the vanity press industry. Taking advantage of all the buzz about print-on-demand, the vanity presses have redoubled their efforts to lure unwary writers into paying to have their novels published.

Self-publishing does make sense for certain segments of the population. If you are wondering whether you should self-publish, go here to read my post from August, 2008, which will walk you through the decision-making process.

There are lots of "entrepreneurs" out there, looking to capitalize on newbie writers' naiveté by giving a few facts and a half-truth or two and then leaving it to the reader to infer something that never happened.

Example: On the website titled "Self-Publishing Resources" here, it says:
Many famous authors and their books were rejected multiple times. Publishers turned down Richard Bach’s Johnathan (sic) Livingston Seagull no less than 140 times; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind received 38 “no’s,” while Stephen King’s Carrie was turned down 30 times. J. K. Rowling’s original work was pooh poohed by 12 publishers...guess who’s kicking themselves now that they passed on Harry Potter? And E. E. (sic) Cummings first work — The Enormous Room, now considered a masterpiece — was ultimately self-published...and dedicated to the 15 publishers who rejected it.
Yes, many famous authors were rejected multiple times. However, Bach and Mitchell were first published by Macmillan, King was first published by Doubleday, and Rowling was first published by Bloomsbury. And note the half-truth: e.e. cummings' first (and only) novel was The Enormous Room, but it was published by Boni and Liveright. It was his manuscript for No Thanks in 1935 that his mother financed. According to Emory University, "With characteristic sarcasm Cummings named the 14 publishers who had rejected the manuscript of No Thanks in the volume itself and said 'Thanks' to his mother, who had financed its publication."

On a website flacking his book about self-publishing here, John Kremer lists the following fifty famous authors who have self-pubbed:
Margaret Atwood, William Blake, Ken Blanchard, Robert Bly, Lord Byron, Willa Cather, Pat Conroy, Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, W.E.B. DuBois, Alexander Dumas, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, E. Lynn Harris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Spencer Johnson, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, Louis L'Amour, D.H. Lawrence, Rod McKuen, Marlo Morgan, John Muir, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Tom Peters, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Pope, Beatrix Potter, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Irma Rombauer, Carl Sandburg, Robert Service, George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, William Strunk, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf.
The list above is sorted alphabetically, which is a bit misleading. Commercial publishing as we know it today did not really get its start until the middle of the 19th century. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, until 1750, Britain produced only 100 new titles a year. It wasn't until 1850 that mass production brought down the costs of books, and it was 1900 before that 100 titles a year became 6,000 titles a year.

A number of the famous commercial publishers we still recognize had their start during the 19th century: Harper & Brothers (HarperCollins) in 1833; Houghton Mifflin & Company in 1880; McGraw-Hill in 1888 and Macmillan in 1896. Prior to 1850, there was NO traditional publishing as we know it today. The business model was totally different with self-publishing being the norm. Therefore, it's comparing apples and oranges to list historical figures together with modern authors.

A quarter of the above authors were writing before the advent of modern commercial publishing and have no business being included on the list: William Blake; Alexander Dumas; Benjamin Franklin; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Lord Byron; Alexander Pope; Thomas Paine; Edgar Allen Poe; Percy Bysshe Shelley; and Henry David Thoreau.

And finally we have what I call "The Big Lie," the one everyone has heard: Stephen King owes his success to self-publishing.

In late October, 2005, I wrote about King's experiments in self-publishing. I called it bold, brave and inspired. Here's a portion of that post:
King first burst onto the public consciousness in 1974-75 with the release of his books, "Carrie" and "Salem's Lot." He tapped into readers' desire to be scared out of their wits . . . By 1995, he had become an icon, and e-publishing
was still in its infancy.

In early 2000, King proposed selling his novella, "Riding the Bullet," online through his publisher, Simon & Schuster. No one was prepared for the onslaught of fans trying to download the new release. In no time at all, he'd sold 400,000 copies of the novella online. Even though e-publishing had been around for more than five years by then, one estimate claims King's sales figures were greater than all the e-books sold on line collectively to that point.

Emboldened by his success, King came back a few months later and tried a second experiment. This time he left Simon & Schuster out of the equation--and I'll bet they weren't happy about it. King decided to sell his novel, "The Plant," directly to readers via Amazon. In a quixotic gesture, he opted to sell the serialized novel on the honor system for $2.50 per installment. He was forced to pull the plug because readers were downloading the installments without paying.
Again, I think there are legitimate reasons to self-publish. However, if you are thinking about it, please take the time to educate yourself. Don't let your impatience justify forking over several thousand dollars. Having a physical copy of your book is the start, not the finish. Remember: Even with a website or a listing on Amazon, you still need to find a way to drive traffic to your book.

Here's a quote that I have always liked:

Three hundred years ago a prisoner condemned to the Tower of London carved on the wall of his cell this sentiment to keep up his spirits during his long imprisonment: 'It is not adversity that kills, but the impatience with which we bear adversity.'


Peter L. Winkler said...

Excellent post.

NE1RD's Blog said...

"...downloading the installments without saying."

I believe you meant "...downloading the installments without paying."

I read Uncublicled by Josh McMains this summer. It was a self-published Kindle book and quite good. The author had done a lot of work on a supporting web site and web-viral advertising to raise awareness. McMains had the technical acumen to self-promote in ways most authors cannot. For those who wish to go this route, they should be prepared to make the same sorts of efforts.

-- Scott

Zorba said...

Thank your for your article, Maya. The first priority is to warn prospective authors about the scams, borderline scams, and countless ways that the new crop of vanity presses attempt to separate an author from her/his money.

It's also important to note that Independent Publishing -- something thoroughly different from vanity press "publishing" -- Independent publishing is now viable, sensible, and flourishing. Authors who publish independently can control their own destiny about many facets of the publishing process. And these Independent authors and publishers are not Amazon-dependent: we can sell from our own websites, and forego the privilege of giving Amazon 55% of each sale (for paper books) and 65% of each sale, for ebooks.

Vanity press "publishing" is always a bad choice, but Independent publishing is often a good one.

Michael Pastore
50 Benefits of Ebooks

Peter L. Winkler said...

"Authors who publish independently can control their own destiny about many facets of the publishing process. And these Independent authors and publishers are not Amazon-dependent: we can sell from our own websites..."

Yes, you can take control of many things, but you bear the full responsibility for any number of areas of the process of making a book for which most writers have no experise: typography, page layout, cover design, etc. Yes, you can get experts to do it, but they cost real money, or you can climb a sisyphean learning curve if you do it yourself.

You can sell your book off your web site, but how are you going to get enough eyeballs on your site to make a difference?

100% control of nothing is still nothing. As Janis Joplin famously sang (lyrics by Kris Kristofferson), "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

Zorba said...

All these obstacles -- the learning curve, and the getting enough attention to sell books -- from a distance, they appear insurmountable.

Then there's a point when you look a bit closer and realize that other people are doing just that, exactly what you believed could not be done -- and suddenly these Herculean tasks seem a bit less impossible.

At last, when you begin doing it, taking the first steps you agree wholeheartedly with Seneca, who said" "It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult."

Peter, we share an appreciation of Palin-free zones, Snow Leopard, and honest book reviews. Obviously, you are liberal-thinking and creative: exactly the kind of person who could become wildly successful by Independent publishing, and then help others along the way.

Michael Pastore
50 Benefits of Ebooks

Sarah said...

And as for Rod McKuen in the above list of "self-publishers," he started a whole business - Stanyan House - which published books and records of others besides himself. Thank you for this great post exposing the truth behind these factoids and half-truths.

Nett Robbens said...

Great, post. Definitely one to circulate.

PJKrupin said...

There's a lot of hype out there that raises hopes and expectations for writers and publishers that financial success might be easier with all the news technologies. It simply isn't the case. Reality is that to get people to buy your writing is really really hard. But it can be done. You can learn how to do it. You need to first write a really good book. You know you're done when other people tell you it's great. Then you must learn what to say that turns people on so that they are willing to hand you money to get what you have to offer. Then once you learn these magic words, then and only then should you use media as a force multiplier to produce and reproduce the actions you hope for in the marketplace.

My new book, Trash Proof talks all about these tactics. It's is up on SmashWords – it’s a free download.

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Paul J. Krupin, Direct Contact PR
Reach the Right Media in the Right Market with the Right Message
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Susan Wenger said...

"Taking advantage of all the buzz about print-on-demand, the vanity presses have redoubled their efforts to lure unwary writers into paying to have their novels published."

(Caveat: I work for a self-publishing company, so you can take the following advice with as much salt as you like.)

In the self-publishing word, as in any industry, some companies are predatory scammers, and some provide a legitimate service.

So how do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Try this. Call up the self-pub company of your choice. While they tell you about what they do, tell them with absolute confidence that you would like your book to be on Oprah. Can they help you get your book on Oprah?

A reputable, honest company will tactfully attempt to manage your expectations. They will inform you that it's nearly impossible to make Oprah's book club even if you're traditionally published. They'll explain how much sweat and toil it takes to sell any copies of your book at all once it's published.

A predatory company doesn't care whether you believe they're your ticket to instant fame and fortune. If the people you talk to try to encourage your Oprah goal, run screaming. Better yet, scream AT THEM, then run.