More Vanity Press Kool Aid

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.

11 thoughts on “More Vanity Press Kool Aid”

  1. I only use them for publishing my small chidrens’ writing and drawings as gifts for the grandparents. My daughter, at three years old, actually sold a few extra copies on-line and bought a toy at the Disney store with her earnings. To my mind, it was the perfect service for something like that. But not for much else.

  2. What’s the lesson here–that it’s okay to self-publish as long as you hire Kelly & Hall for you PR, or that we should all be hiring Kelly & Hall, even if we’re being traditionally published???

  3. Hi Lee,
    I’ve interviewed Lisa Genova twice for stories I wrote for newspapers on Cape Cod. Her success was due to many factors.
    First of all she was a self-promoting powerhouse for about 10 months BEFORE she ever hired Kelly and Hall. She spent about two hours a day on social networking sites creating buzz and never said no to a single opportunity to talk about her book. She gave away free copies, visited book groups, and taught a class at Grub Street in Boston.
    But the real reason “Still Alice” was so successful is that it is a heartbreakingly beautiful novel. I will never forget it.
    That’s what set it apart from MOST self-published books I have read – and I’ve read more of them than I want for my job. Most self-published novels need a really good and brutal editor. Lisa’s novel didn’t.
    Her trouble with the traditional publishing route was that no one wanted to touch a novel about early-onset Alzheimer’s – too grim. So she created an audience to prove them wrong.

  4. Laurie,
    Did she ever tell you how much it cost her to publish and promote the book? The publicist alone must have cost her thousands of dollars. And did she ever say if she recouped those costs in sales *before* getting an advance from a real publisher?
    That would be important information for other authors to know who are considering going the vanity press route.

  5. Actually, I don’t think of Lulu, BookSurge or iUniverse as self-publishing. They are “value-added” publishers. If someone else is handling any traditional in-house publishing chores on your behalf, then you aren’t self-publishing. If I would make a distinction, Lee, it’s that traditional “vanity” presses use the offset method and the new “value-added” publishers use POD.
    To be in business as a self-publisher, you must be prepared to take all production in-house and contract with an offset printer or a POD printer that works directly with publishers, most likely Lightning Source. Mrs. TVB and I – – went offset with our first title, POD with the teacher’s guide, and all future titles will be POD.
    If you are self-publishing, you can sell your book at a competitive price while making a nice profit on every copy. This is where “value-added” publishing is just like traditional vanity publishing: You either have to charge an arm or a leg for your book, or forego profits. And if you’re forgoing profits, sorry, but you are not in business as a self-publisher.

  6. Lee, I don’t want want to be a proponent for self-publishing, but if the formula is to spend some bucks (maybe a few thousand, maybe more), hire someone like Kelly & Hall, and have a 20% chance of making it, then that’s quite a bit different than the nearly 0% chance that most others who self-publish. Looking at Kelly & Hall’s web-site, they have at least 3 significant success stories who originally self-published–hard to tell how many others since some of the other press names could be author vanity names, but 15’s not a bad assumption. 3/15 == 20% (yes, I was a math major in college).

  7. It’s a shame that media always confuse print-on-demand publishing companies with true self-publishing — with the emphasis on self. Most of the members of the Self-Publishing Hall of Fame truly self-published their books.

  8. Sounds to me like self-publishing is more like a LOTTERY than like regular publishing. In a lottery everybody loses but one person wins and so lots of persons play it for fun.
    If somebody SELF-PUBLISHES, it’s like buying the lottery ticket — might get rich, probably won’t, but for $1,000 it’s fun to play. And if the book sells 100 copies for $10 per copy, the person recoups their original payout.
    Real publishing is largely about the book. Self-publishing is largely about the money.

  9. I don’t really get the criticism. Who out there thinks self-publishing is easy? I think most people recognize that it’s intensely difficult, but preferable to not being read at all. And I’ll echo the sentiments above – just what if you could afford a high-end PR firm? This is actually a valid argument for self-publishing: if you can afford high-end promotions, you have a better chance of making it. Even if it costs more, it’s still a route to success.

  10. It’s a route to success for about three in a million or more. Do the math. It still means this: commercial publishers rejected your novel on its face and most likely for good reason.


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