Every time a major magazine or new outlet does a story touting self-publishing, in this case a piece on the CNN tech website, I get inundated by readers asking me what I think. So does Victoria Strauss at Writers Beware...only she probably gets it ten times worse than I do. She's written a post on the formula most of these articles usually follow. She says, in part, that they:
1. Pick a rare instance of self-publishing success–in this case, Lisa Genova, whose iUniverse-published novel Still Alice garnered a major publishing deal. Make sure not to tell the whole story–omit, for instance, the fact that Genova hired PR firm Kelly & Hall–the same firm that propelled self-published Brunonia Barry to success–to publicize her book, and acquired a literary agent as a result of the attention Kelly & Hall was able to generate.
2. Segue to the growth of self-publishing and the great possibilities it offers for budding authors, while taking a swipe at the commercial publishing industry. Totally ignore the contradiction inherent in the fact the success of the self-published author just discussed hinged on her transition to a commercial publisher.
3. Toss out a few random facts about self-publishing (not all of them necessarily relevant–Khatami notes that the self-published author "retains the copyright to his or her book," as if this were not the case with commercial publishing), while ignoring the issue of low sales (the average self-published book sells fewer than 200 copies) and limited distribution (most self-pubbed books are not distributed beyond the Internet).
These articles never mention the tens of thousands of dollars that these "successful" self-published authors had to spend…and how extraordinarily rare it is for vanity press authors jump to a real publisher, which despite their hoo-hawing for vanity presses is what they all want.
The CNN website story mentions that Lulu has published 820,000 titles since 2002 but they don't say how many of those authors actually sold more than a few dozen copies of their work. A real reporter might have asked that question…and posted the answer as a reality-check. But this was nothing more than a vanity press puff piece…the last thing anyone was interested in doing was shining a light on the ugly truth.
AuthorHouse's online Fact Sheet, updated in September 2008, reported 36,823 authors and 45,993 titles. According to the New York Times, AuthorHouse reports selling more than 2.5 million books in 2008, which sounds like a lot, but averages out to around 54 sales per title.
iUniverse's 2005 Facts and Figures sheet reports that the company published 22,265 titles through the end of that year, with sales of 3.7 million: an average of 166 sales per title. Obviously some titles can boast better sales (Amy Fisher's If I Knew Then sold over 32,000 copies)–but not many. According to a 2004 article in Publishers Weekly, only 83 of more than 18,000 iUniverse titles published during that year sold at least 500 copies. And in a 2008 article in The New York Times, iUniverse's VP, Susan Driscoll, admitted that most iUniverse authors sell fewer than 200 books.
The vanity presses make their money selling books to authors, not selling books to readers.
There are three more items on Victoria's list and I'm going to refer people to it every time they email me a mindless article like this one.