The Mail I Get

I get lots of emails every week asking me about the benefits of self-publishing (quick answer: there are none). Here is a typical one that I received this week:

I am in the process of finishing my book. While I have some interest from publishers, I am interested in exploring self-publishing to make more profit off the sales. A friend and fellow writer mentioned in passing about a company that will take your manuscript and upload it into a database. Then, when your book is ordered by someone, it is then printed and shipped…and a royalty check is then sent. Do you know anything about these companies, such as who they are? Also, as a writer who has been involved with actual publishers through the mainstream means of publishing, what are your opinions on going with a “regular” publisher vs. self-publishing?

No offense, but I don’t buy thatyou’re motivated by making more money…because there is no money to be made in print-on-demand self-publishing…unless you are the publishing company. My guess is that you’re afraid of rejection from mainstream publishers and are looking for an "easy" way into print. There is no profit to be made from going to a vanity press…it’s a blatant swindle. The vanity press industry feeds off the desperation and ignorance of aspiring authors. Don’t become one of the suckers. Save your money.

46 thoughts on “The Mail I Get”

  1. Wow, it is shocking how outdated your perception of print-on-demand is. In case you haven’t heard, horse drawn carriages and rotary phones are obsolete, too. You seem to have trouble embracing the independent spirit. My guess is that you admire filmmakers that finance their own films. Are the manufactures of the cameras, and the film (or digital tape) swindling these writer/directors? Are companies who develop and sell the editing hardware and software taking advantage of these dreamers who have virtually no chance of making their money back from these ‘vanity’ films? Shame on them for giving these poor unsuspecting filmmakers an opportunity to produce their own films and share their artistic visions.
    You’re entitled to your opinion no matter how misguided it may be, but I encourage you to rethink your position. There is room for “independent” authors. True, we’re not traditionally published literary giants like Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson, but then again, you are more than welcome to claim them as your professional peers if you wish.
    In the interest of full disclosure, I am an ‘independent’ author and I work for a POD company. I’ve tried the traditional route. I had an agent. I got oh so close, but things never materialized. I decided to go it on my own. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Has it made me a rich man? No, but the sense of satisfaction is immeasurable. In addition, I know POD authors who have done quite well for themselves financially. So, the thought isn’t inconceivable.
    I wish you luck and apologize for the smugness of this comment. It just drives me crazy when my integrity (both professional and creative) is attacked.

  2. If you’re reading this, person who e-mailed Lee, I’d strongly advise you to stick to ‘traditional’ publishers. (This is as someone published by a ‘regular’ publisher.) Publishers have got a whole bunch of stuff they can do to promote a book that a POD can’t supply; if you POD, you’re going to have to do all the work of selling it yourself, and that’s not your job. You should be spending that time writing your next book, and you won’t have the connections that a proper publisher can employ to get attention, sales and publicity.
    If you’ve had interest from publishers, then that’s great, and congratulations! You should be following that up: POD may work if you can’t sell your book to a publisher, sometimes, if you’re clear on what you’re getting into – but you should never choose it over full-on publication.

  3. I just read your sample chapter and prologue and the reason you didn’t get published the traditional way is that you’re a terrible writer and never meant and expository statement you didn’t like.

  4. I notice that R.W. also has a “review” from Kirkus Discoveries on his site that favorably compares his work to Stephen King and the Wizard of Oz. What R.W. neglects to mention is that he paid for the review (Kirkus Discoveries are reviews that authors have paid for, as opposed to “Kirkus Reviews,” which is a legitimate publication and has objective reviewers). Not only has he paid to be published, he has also paid to be praised. And having read his sample, I can see why. I concur with anonymous, the reason he wasn’t published by a traditional publisher is because he’s not a very good writer.

  5. Franklin, yep proudly paid for it, but you need to get up to speed on Kirkus Discoveries. You don’t pay for a good review. They will slam you if they don’t like the work. It’s Kirkus. They aren’t going to risk their reputation for $300. If you don’t believe me, I suggest reading some of their reviews.

  6. Look, I should have known better than to post a comment defending POD. I obviously believe in it, but I know there are some very strong opinions on the other side of the fence. I was just taken aback by vitriolic tone of the posting. I should have been more diplomatic in my original comment. I truly wish you all luck and don’t want to make enemies of other writers.

  7. R.W. wrote “You seem to have trouble embracing the independent spirit.”
    The movie industry and the book industry are two entirely different things. There is no comparison between filming an independantly financed movie and getting suckered by a POD press and Kirkus Discoveries. You have virtually no chance of success — monetarily, professionally or critically — going the POD route with fiction. No one is going to take your book, or your review, seriously…except maybe your Mom, your girlfriend, and your co-workers. POD is not the future for authors, it’s the sad rationalization the POD suckers use to justify their expense.
    The print-on-demand technology itself may be the future of publishing…in terms of traditional publishers using it for backlist titles and for printing galleys. But you aren’t going to see traditional publishers and brick-and-mortar booksellers replaced by individuals paying to be published by POD outfits and selling their books online.
    (FYI – There is not a single professional writers organization that acknowledges printing your manuscript in book form through POD technology as true “publication”…and there are virtually no respected publications that will review POD/vanity press books. That should tell you something).

  8. Lee, there is no denying your success as an author. You’ve done very well for yourself. I happen to think you are wrong about POD. I know one POD author who signed a three book seven figure deal with Simon & Schuster. I’ve sold close to 2,000 copies of my books. It won’t get me on any bestseller lists, but hell, do you know how many people read my books when I didn’t have a POD book? Zero. I’m not in this to get rich. No one should be.
    POD is not the evil publishing entity you make it out to be. There are good people who work in the POD industry and there are good people who publish using POD. It’s not for very everybody. I understand that.

  9. POD technology is valuable, and is now being embraced by traditional publishers. The problem is that it made vanity publishing cheap, so a flood of unpublished writers have had their work put into something resembling a book (minus serious editing, copyediting, proofreading, packaging, and promotion). Vanity houses used to charge many thousands of dollars to produce even a minimal edition but now charge a few hundred dollars. These nonbooks are listed on Amazon and pages, the same as traditional books, with resultant sales. The main difference is consensus. In traditional houses editorial and sales committees review and accept or reject the proposed work, (usually gotten from a literary agent who is himself a gatekeeper), offer suggestions, help shape the material, involve themselves in sales, packaging and promotion. They occasionally make mistakes, but generally choose well, which is how the houses remain profitable. There is no expert consensus governing quality at a vanity publisher.

  10. Richard W. Wheeler: You’re right. There is no vetting process in the POD world, but again I go back to the independent film analogy (I know Lee is not a fan of this argument, but I think it’s valid because a studio film is shaped in much the same way a mainstream book is shaped.) The studio heads and high level executive producers are taken out of the decision making process. The control elements are removed that go into a studio financed film. Yet, there is no outcry when a filmmaker finances his own film. In fact he or she is usually lauded for his courage. Why isn’t the same courtesy afforded to a writer who pays to publish his own book? He or she is ostracized for using a ‘vanity’ press. Shouldn’t the final arbiters of what’s fit to be published be the public? If they read the sample pages, and like what they see, what’s the difference if it was passed through a committee of editors and marketers at a traditional publishing house or not?

  11. Since you bring up the sample pages… I’ll confess, I didn’t find the quality of the work to be very high. The first person narrative is written in an overly precious and self-conscious manner that turned me off almost immediately. I also found some of the phrasing to be awkward (e.g., “I broke the fever.”) and the opening graf to be problematic. I’m sorry to say, but I, too, would reject it based on that sample.
    So perhaps vanity publishing is for this author. I don’t say that disparagingly. I don’t presume to know what his goals are, and it’s entirely possible that a vanity press offers the pathway to reach those goals. If that’s the case, then I hope he finds success and fulfillment in that manner.
    For others who might be reading this, however, I do urge you in the strongest terms to please never pay for a book review. A purchased review has less than no credibility; it actually diminishes the reputation of the work and the author, rather than bolstering it. It shows that the author is naive about the publishing industry, and that s/he couldn’t get any legitimate reviews.
    There are outlets that will review vanity press works. Granted, they are few and with little reputation, but they do exist. Any one of them would be better than paying for a review.

  12. Mr. Ridley: a vanity press-published book is not an independent venture. A self-published book is. I have a friend, Stan West, who in the 70s sold a novel that became an Emmy-nominated TV drama starring Kirk Douglas–but was unable to sell again to established publishers. So he created his own company, published his own books, and made a success of it, including the recent sale of another of his novels, Blind Your Ponies, to a film company. If you wish to be an independent, then go the route. Start a company, get an ISBN and bar code, market your book, and collect the profit or take the loss. But it would be folly to call an IUniverse book an independent venture similar to an an independently made film.

  13. David J. Montgomery: Thank you for the constructive criticism. It was well stated, and I appreciate it. As far as paying for the review, all I can say is that it has generated sales for me. In particular, libraries have purchased the book in bulk based on the review. I have never respresented it. I’ve always cited the source “Kirkus Discoveries.’
    Richard Wheeler: I do own my ISBNs and barcode. It’s not an iUniverse book. It’s another POD. I do market my book. I am having success. The audience is young adult/fantasy. I’ve talked to a couple of ‘producers’ in you LA, but as you know these things take time, and I have no idea how connected these ‘producers’ really are.
    Am I not independent? The more I read this blog, the more lonely and independent I feel. 🙂

  14. I think people should just keep in mind that R. W. Ridley is not just a self-published writer, but he also works in a sales/marketing capacity for Booksurge, a major POD company. In other words, he is a professional salesman selling the POD “solution” to consumers.

  15. Whew. Came to post a note agreeing with Lee (whose sister Linda has been in a couple of my books, which I did not publish myself, thankyoujesus)and have to add that I can’t imagine why anyone with any other recourse would choose to publish it themselves. With no other recourse? Then sure–what’s to lose?

  16. Richard Myers: I have stated many times that I work for a POD company. In fact, that’s why I decided to post here. Lee used the word ‘swindle’ in association with print-on-demand. I felt it was an unfair label to slap on those of us who do work in the industry. My honor was attacked (not to mention a lot of people I work with and admire), and I felt the need to defend what I do for a living. Yes, I am a salesperson, and I am author, and I have blog where I sing the praises of POD If you want even more disclosure, I can give you a list of suspicious moles on various parts of my body, and a very short list of women I’ve dated.

  17. I have visited this blog numerous times but I am disappointed by the current comments. It seems the recent discussion fails to offer any useful advice for writers, authors or avid readers looking for new books; rather I have found playground banter.

  18. R.W. wrote: “Lee used the word ‘swindle’ in association with print-on-demand. I felt it was an unfair label to slap on those of us who do work in the industry”
    And I will say it again…the POD industry takes advantage of the gullibility and desperation of aspiring novelists.
    The POD industry is selling a lie, the notion that paying to be published will make writers money (when very, very few will even make back their “investment”) and will establish them as professional authors (despite the fact that no legitimate, professional writers organization accepts self-published POD authors as professionals…not the MWA, SFWA, RWA, ITW, HWA, Authors Guild, etc.)
    The POD industry makes their money from authors…not from book sales to the public. They aren’t publishers. They are printers who produce a manuscript in trade paperback form for a fee…from the author.
    Very few “brick and mortar” bookstores will carry POD titles. No major print or broadcast media will review POD novels. No professional writers organizations will acknowledge POD authors. Why? Because they know it for the same scam that I do. Anyone with a credit card can become an author…the lie the POD industry is selling is that this is the “wave of the future” or akin to independant movie making. That line may work on the naive, the gullible, the talentless, and the desperate…but not on anyone else.
    THAT SAID, I think the POD model can work for non-fiction books…how-to, self-help, technical, inspirational and reference works…particularly if the authors are doing seminars, teaching classes, giving speeches, etc. that give them an opportunity to sell directly to their audience/students.

  19. David: I’m disappointed in your comment. Deeply disappointed. Your other posts were reasonable and well thought out. I stated from my first post that I work for a POD company. I didn’t mention the name of the company for one simple reason. My opinions are my own. They are not the opinions of my employer. To call me a shill, is grossly inaccurate and patently false.
    I have a passion for what I do. I believe in what I do. In your mind, that is somehow dishonest and unethical.

  20. Mr. Ridley: you say you have your own ISBN and barcode, but virtually every book published has those. Each book has a unique footprint. The question is whether you, as an alleged independent publisher, have a publishing barcode and ISBN you purchased from the relevant agency such as Bowker– and not ones assigned to your book by a vanity press. Do you employ a vanity press’s house-owned barcode and ISBN and do you print your books through that press, or do you contract with the POD manufacturer (usually Lightning Press, owned by Ingram) to have your books printed? What is the name of your press that has this ISBN and barcode listing? If you are calling yourself an independent publisher but are actually employing a vanity press in various capacities, then, perhaps you will want to retreat from any claim you have made of being a self-publisher.

  21. Mr. Ridley: You are a client of BookSurge, which is fair enough, but you are also an employee of theirs (and apparently a salesman for the company). Yet you came on here proselytizing for the benefits of vanity presses, masquerading as an “independent author.”
    With that information in mind, everyone can make up their own minds about the veracity of your statements.

  22. I think Mr. Ridley is correct: Calling him a shill is a gross inaccuracy. He’s actually a fucktard with a profound conflict of interest…which is just slightly more derogatory, but doubtlessly closer to the truth.

  23. David: Yikes, you just don’t want to listen to me. Here’s what I wrote in my very first post: “In the interest of full disclosure, I am an ‘independent’ author and I work for a POD company.”
    If you don’t believe me, scan up and read it yourself. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
    How can you possibly claim I misrepresented myself? Do you want my employee number and a description of my benefits package, too?
    You’re developing a grand conspiracy theory here when it’s very clearly stated in my FIRST post that I work for a POD company. Sometimes there’s just one shooter, David. It’s okay. But you may have read one too many mystery novels.
    Richard S. Wheeler: Okay, now to your questions:
    My First Book: My POD company owns the ISBN.
    My Second Book: I purchased a block of 10 ISBNs from Bowker, and used one for this title.
    My Third Book (to be released soon): I will use one the block of 10 for this book.
    I’m not calling myself an independent publisher. I never used that term. I am an independent author. I reject the term ‘vanity.’ It’s offensive and meant to demean those of us who chose this particular self-publishing route. If you want, we can dig up McCarthy so you can have some hearings that will out us all, but I’m hoping for a world where we can all co-exist.
    Now, where did that get us? I fail to see your point. Because I use the latest technology to print and distribute my book, I can’t claim to be a self-publisher? Huh?
    Honestly, I think we have a generational divide going on here. You sound like (I’m speaking to the entire gang here at Lee’s Funtorium) all those grown-ups in the 50’s who thought rock n roll was the devils music. Print on demand is not evil.
    You are all probably really great people and I wish you nothing but the best. Together we can create a world where all the little POD books and all the little traditionally published books can hang out together on bookshelves (both virtual and real) all across America. Amen! Queue the music!

  24. The Booksurge shill is blogging about you at
    “Lee and his band of brothers want to keep you out of their community because you haven’t been officially sanctioned by the ivory tower crew.
    I think it’s important that you know this attitude is out there. But the good news is the people that hold these opinions are fast becoming obsolete. Not because technology has passed them by, but because they refuse to embrace the changes technology brings.”
    When cornered with facts, the print-on-demand crowd always fall back the argument that any rules that deny them professional recognition are elitist and being done by authors who don’t want to share their glory. It’s pathetic.

  25. Okay, if you all are stuck on this shill business, can we at least make it cool. How about Shilly the Kid or Shilliam Shakespeare or Sir Shill. Something to spice it up.
    I just want my books so I can sell them on my own. I work for the company that prints my book. You act as if I had sex with your wife and shaved your cat.
    Not to be mean, but I’m not sure what glory is to be shared here. I’ve never heard of any of you. I’m sure you’re all very fine writers, but c’mon is there really anything that I should envy here? I’m asking. Seriously. You all know everyting but my shirt size, and I know nothing about you. Tod with one d has even given me a cute little pet name. I feel like I should know more about this crowd. So, dish, spill, give me the skinny. Who’s who and what’s what?

  26. I publish 99.9% of the comments posted here, regardless of whether I agree with them or if they criticize me (just look at some of the fanfic comments!). I believe the differing points of view create a lively discussion.
    I mention this because I went over to R.W.’s blog and submitted a comment to his post about me. The content of my comment was basically the same as my lengthy reply to one of his comments here.
    As I expected, he didn’t publish my comment, it and I think his reasoning is revealing:
    “Lee sent a response to my post and as a moderator, I’m choosing not to post it here. This is a place to help and encourage POD authors. It was never been intended for someone to use to attack someone else or the POD industry.
    I’m sure he’ll post something on his blog in reponse to my rejection. Suffice it to say, he doesn’t like me or POD. And he thinks I’ve mislead a lot of you.
    This is the kind of stuff you can expect when you’ve chosen a path of independence, but that’s what makes it fun!”
    I don’t dislike R.W., nor did I attack him in my comment on his blog. But he’s right that I do distrust and dislike the POD vanity presses, which I believe mislead and harm writers. The best way to fight them is with the facts…and facts are the last thing they want the aspiring writers they prey upon to know. Which is why R.W., and employee of one of the vanity presses, didn’t want to post a contradictory view on his blog.
    That is his right, of course, and I certainly respect that.

  27. R.W.,
    You can find out “who” I am just by looking at the books on the column on the right, or by clicking the link to my website. I am a writer/producer of TV shows and the author of many books, both fiction and non-fiction. I am also on the board of the Mystery Writers of America.
    Richard S. Wheeler is a legendary author of dozens of highly acclaimed western novels and a former editor at a publishing company.
    David J. Montgomery is a book critic with the Chicago Sun-Times.
    My brother Tod Goldberg is an acclaimed novelist, short story writer, Los Angeles Times Book Prize nominee, and an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California.
    I don’t know who the anonymous posters are.

  28. I am as big a skeptic as anyone about self-publishing and POD. Having said that, I think that Mr. Ridley has comported himself here in an honest and good natured manner. Nevertheless he’s been called a shill and a fucktard. Ridley explicitly stated he works for a POD company, but he didn’t appear here issuing commercials for that company, nor did he even mention its name. I’d hardly call that shilling for anyone. Ridley has used the services of said company to publish himself and is positive about the experience. He never tied his enthusiasm for using POD to self-publish to the particular company he works for. One may impute a conflict of interest, but I don’t see the evidence to prove it.

  29. I am sure the University of California would be thrilled to know that one of their professors is calling a writer, self published or not, such a juvenile name.
    What an inspiration he must be to his students!

  30. “I am sure the University of California would be thrilled to know that one of their professors is calling a writer, self published or not, such a juvenile name.”
    It’s only UCLA… It’s not like it’s Berkeley or something.

  31. The University is well aware that Tod calls writers — and lots of other people — fucktards. That’s why they offered him a job.

  32. Mr. Ridley has conducted his discourse with restraint. Rather than comparing himself to an independent film producer, I wish he would compare himself to Alexandre Dumas, Pere, who was a genius at self-publishing and had his own book factory, with assorted ghost writers, churning out his very popular books and plays, including The Three Musketeers. There still is a hitch, though. Dumas sold like crazy, and his book factory could barely keep up with demand. But Mr. Ridley doesn’t seem able to generate significant sales from his own book factory. Demand tells the story.

  33. If I got in trouble for all the people I’ve ever called a fucktard, well, I’d be in a lot of trouble. But I don’t think any university I’ve ever been employed by would be upset with me for calling someone who self-publishes a fucktard, because I teach my students about the business of writing, too, and that means understanding that publication is not a god-given right and that just because you own a printing press, you’re not suddenly published. What I also tell my students is that if agents and publishers reject your work, there’s probably a pretty good reason: it sucks. Believing otherwise makes you a fucktard, because sometimes it’s not all about them, it’s about you.

  34. What I also tell my students is that if agents and publishers reject your work, there’s probably a pretty good reason: it sucks. Believing otherwise makes you a fucktard, because sometimes it’s not all about them, it’s about you.
    And this is where I really cannot follow you. As far as I’ve heard EVERYBODY gets rejected most of the time. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – one of the greatest success stories in book selling – was rejected by eleven publishers before it finally was accepted. What if JKR had given up after the tenth rejection? Would you say that this was proof that her book sucked? Not everyone is up to being stubborn enough to swallow 100 rejection letters and finally get lucky with the 101st. For such people POD publishing may be a good alternative. As someone else here said: let the sales numbers prove the book’s worth. In the end it’s the consumers who decide what they want to read.

  35. Dear Mr. Wheeler:
    Dumas had already established a reputation as a successfull, well known writer before he self-published:
    “While working in Paris, Dumas began to write articles for magazines as well as plays for the theatre. In 1829 his first solo play, Henry III and his Court, was produced, meeting with great public acclaim. The following year his second play, Christine, proved equally popular, and as a result, he was financially able to work full time at writing. In 1830, he participated in the revolution that ousted King Charles X and replaced him on the throne with Dumas’s former employer, the duc d’Orléans, who would rule as Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King.
    After writing more successful plays, he turned his efforts to novels. Although attracted to an extravagant lifestyle, and always spending more than he earned, Dumas proved to be a very astute business marketer. With high demand from newspapers for serial novels, in 1838, he simply rewrote one of his plays to create his first serial novel. Titled Le Capitaine Paul, it led to his forming a production studio that turned out hundreds of stories, all subject to his personal input and direction.”
    Poe, on the other hand, paid for his collection of poems to be published, and he never sold a copy. Van Gogh sold three of his paintings during his lifetime.
    Great talent doesn’t necessarily generate demand, nor does a lack of demand necessarily prove the absence of quality in an author’s work.

  36. Being rejected by ten publishers is nothing — hell, I’ve been rejected more than that — plus, what you’re going to find is that there is always an exception to the rule (Confederacy of Dunces also leaps to mind). (I just read Mr. Ridley’s sample pages…he’s not the exception.) But generally, if an author can’t get an agent and then can’t get a publisher, there is a pretty good reason. POD is printing model for the self-published, it’s not a publishing option. If you ran a restaurant and no one who ordered the chicken a la kete liked it, wouldn’t you get the hint and take it off the menu? Sales don’t prove worth anymore than a nice car makes someone more attractive — James Patterson writes pabulum that is consumed by the masses but that does that make him better than Margaret Atwood?
    You know what’s fascinating? When was the last time you heard an author who wasn’t self-published telling others self-publishing or POD is the way to go? The only people who argue for the validity of self publishing are people who self publish.

  37. I would like to put in my two cents in defense of POD publishing. Last month (Aug/07) I went print-ready with my first self-published book, “Papa Do Run-A Baby Boomer Looks (and Laughs) at Vintage Rock & Roll.” I produced the book with BookSurge, and I found the entire team I worked with, including Richard Ridley, to be very knowledgeable and professional – and I’m proud of the resultant book. As for the “vanity” aspect of POD publishing, there’s no question it still exists. I’ve seen a few books published with other POD companies, and while they looked good, the content made me wince. But I still think POD gives decent writers that fall into the “gray areas’ a chance to publish. To use myself as an example, I have had five books published by traditional publishers in Canada, where I live. With the regional nature of my subjects, it made sense. But for my current subject (rock & roll) I wanted to reach a wider, particularly US, audience. After spending a year and a half getting rejections saying the ms. was well-written, funny, original etc. but was aimed at too small an audience to be considered, I decided to self-publish. Could I have kept on sending the ms. out until I perhaps found a traditional publisher willing to take it on? Of course…but as a boomer who just turned 60, I’ve got a whole other kind of biological clock ticking, and I don’t feel like paying those kind of dues, which I might if I were still in my twenties. Would the critics of POD who say that the quality of writing isn’t good enough read my book and say it was an exception, or further proved their point. I don’t know, but I’m happy with it.


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