Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is This Really How You Want to Make Money?

Two years ago, I wrote a post here on April 28, 2007, in which I said:
So how DOES a publishing house justify its existence in a digitized world?

. . . While anyone may be able to produce an e-book, the failure of most self-published books is evidence that merely having a book is not enough . . . What I suspect is going to happen is that the lines between publisher, distributor, bookstore and author are going to start blurring. Unusual contracts among the different parties are likely to emerge.
Yesterday a piece in Publishers Marketplace reminded me of those words--and not in an entirely comfortable way:
. . . Thomas Nelson has launched a self-publishing imprint, WestBow Press--though they are outsourcing the bulk of the operation to self-publishing giant Author Solutions. AS will design, publish and distribute the books. Nelson's primary roles appears to be sharing revenue and promising customers an "opportunity to be discovered by parent company Thomas Nelson.... For authors who hope to one day be signed by a traditional publisher, this is an opportunity to get your foot in the door."
Thomas Nelson is, of course, the world's largest Christian publisher. Mike Hyatt is the president and CEO and someone for whom I have enormous admiration.

Author Solutions, as I've described it previously, is the Mother of Self-Publishing. Among other properties, the corporation owns AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and Xlibris. Entrepreneur interviewed Keith Ogorek, Author Solutions' director of marketing in April, 2008: "'As a company, Author House will publish about one of every 17 titles in the United States this coming year,' Ogorek says. That's about 20,000 titles."

I squirmed when I read the blurb by Publishers Marketplace, thinking "Who are we kidding here? The self-publishing industry has made millions stomping on newbie writers' dreams for money. And now Nelson is going to help lure more people into using a vanity press with the vague hope that they'll get a 'foot in the door'?"

My mood was not helped by this statement from the Nelson press release yesterday:
Titles published through WestBow Press will be evaluated for sales potential and considered for publication under the Thomas Nelson imprint.
Come on, folks. What are the odds that a writer self-publishing through a vanity press will end up with a traditional publishing contract?

And before anyone points to The Shack, please go here to read my previous blog titled "Should You Self-Publish?" William P. Young did not go to a vanity press. He went to a pastor friend he trusted. That friend and another former pastor formed their own company, Windblown Media, to publish the book.

In other words, someone besides the writer saw the value in the book and was willing to invest cold hard cash in it. The writer ("a former office manager and hotel night clerk" according to the New York Times) did not pay to be published.

Mike Hyatt wrote about the new Nelson division in his blog yesterday here. The post made me feel both better and worse. It also left me with questions.

Mike specifically said, "If prospective authors are convinced their book should be in print and are willing to fund it, they should be able to do so without the fear that they might be ripped off."

I worked as a licensed social worker in both inpatient and outpatient settings for a number of years. The medical field uses "informed consent" forms in order to make sure that any patient considering treatment has "a clear appreciation and understanding of the facts, implications and future consequences of an action" (thanks, Wikipedia). In other words: the patient must understand the risks involved before commencing treatment.

So, is WestBow going to ensure that potential clients are offered informed consent? If the book in question is the typical self-published mess and the writer is entertaining the fantasy that Nelson will soon be offering a contract, will WestBow disabuse the writer of such notions? Is WestBow going to offer a reality check, or are they simply going to collect a check?

In his post, Mike offered a list of seven situations in which self-publishing makes sense. I completely agreed with four of them (the third, fourth, fifth and seventh). The first, second and sixth sounded dangerously like the pap most self-publishing companies offer.

The thing that disturbed me most about Mike's post was the following statement:
We also want to work with agents and consultants as “WestBow Press Affiliates,” so that they can help more authors realize their dream of getting published. Rather than simply send a rejection letter, they can now offer a legitimate alternative and earn a referral fee in the process.
So now we're offering agents the opportunity to pick up extra cash by making referrals to a self-publishing company.

I know things are tough in publishing today. But seriously, guys, is this the way you want to go?

Thomas Nelson enjoys a sterling reputation in the publishing business. Newbie writers are going to be reassured to see that WestBow belongs to Nelson. To me, that says Nelson has a higher obligation to provide information and assistance before taking a check from a still damp, newly hatched fledgling writer.

That's the Christian thing to do.


Peter L. Winkler said...

This a vanity press scam, pure and simple. The agent referral fee stinks like the Edit Ink case did.

Maya Reynolds said...

Peter: My two biggest issues are:

(1) The connection between WestBow and Thomas Nelson. I'm concerned that naive newbie writers will see WestBow as a "shortcut" to being commercially published by Nelson.

(2) I really object to the idea of agents making referrals to WestBow in their rejection letters with an eye to making a fee. Again, newbie writers may see this as validation by the agent that the manuscript in question is worthy of publication when, in fact, it is not.

At the same time, while I'm not happy about WestBow, it is important to note that Edit Ink was a fraudulent operation, paying kickbacks to phony literary agents.

WestBow and Author Solutions are services which will ultimately produce a bound book for a writer who pays the fees. If having a bound book to give to friends or to sell to parishioners is the end goal of the writer . . . fine.

If, however, there is even the ghost of a suggestion that self-publishing may lead to a commercial contract with Nelson, I have concern.



Kristy said...

Wouldn't it be a conflict of interest for agents to make referrals to a vanity press and be compensated for it?

Michael N. Marcus said...

By hooking up with a vanity press, and lying about being a self-publishing business and offering free books, Nelson has made a deal with the devil.

It's like the evangelical ministers who cheat o ntheir wives.

Maya Reynolds said...

Kristy: I agree although I suspect it's a bit of a gray area. For years, I'm told Peter Maas has recommended his books on writing in his rejection letters.

Michael: Nelson is being very upfront about opening a self-publishing business, and no one is offering free books. said...


Yeah, Peter: This a vanity press scam, pure and simple. The agent referral fee stinks like the Edit Ink case did.

Here's the deal: establish a literary agency and refer EVERY submission to a kickback-fee self pub vanity press of one sort or another. Shouldn't take up a lot of your time.

And look at all the published books you can eventually list.

Chris Eldin said...

I'm over from Nathan's. The biggest concern to me is the connection to the agents.

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