Why Self-Published Books Fail

If you bring up the harsh realities about self-publishing and print-on-demand vanity presses, you’re inevitably going to get trashed by legions of aspiring writers who think that writing a check to Authorhouse makes them a published author.  Which is why I thought it was pretty gutsy of bestselling author Tess Gerritsen to offer her opinion on why vanity press books inevitably fail. She lays the blame primarily on lack of distribution to brick-and-mortar stores and the no-returns policy that most of these so-called publishers have. She says it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quality of the books.

I agree with her — except on the quality issue.  I think she’s being nice.  From my conversations with booksellers, their decision not to stock self-published titles has just as much to do with the quality of the books (or lack thereof).  I’m talking both about the way they are written and the way they are printed and bound. The cold, hard, unpleasant truth is that there’s a good reason that most of these authors go to vanity presses…because their manuscripts are unsaleable, unreadable crap that no agent will represent and that no editor would ever publish. Vanity press titles usually look terrible, too, inside and out. On top of that, Tess points out that booksellers find self-published authors difficult to deal with.

I was reminded of this at a booksigning at a Barnes and Noble in New
Hampshire.  After the signing, the events coordinator thanked me for
being “so easy to work with — unlike some other authors.”

“But I would think that most authors are pretty nice,” I said.

“Most are,” she said.  “But the self-published ones are horrible.”
Then she described an incident that had happened earlier that week.  A
local self-published author had requested that the store arrange a
booksigning for him, and she had turned him down flat.  Enraged, he’d
thrown the book on the floor and asked: “When the hell am I ever going
to get a signing in this store?”

“When pigs fly,” she’d snapped at him.  The man couldn’t accept the
fact that their store almost never hosted signings by self-published
authors — even if the author was local.

I hear this a lot from my bookseller friends. The problem, they say, is that people buy the iUniverse hype — that writing a check makes them a published author — and are shocked when booksellers don’t agree.

64 thoughts on “Why Self-Published Books Fail”

  1. I certainly agree as one who both has two of these experiments, albeit from a long time ago, and frequently say the same thing based on the evidence. I don’t think my nonfiction reportage travel stories are “trash,” but unsalable in a commerical market is certainly the case. They aren’t novels either. Memoirs and other personal nonfiction, without status and a platform are as a rule not salable to a commercial publisher.

  2. Self-publishing, and this includes the highest quality writer who felt this step was necessary and so may become lost in the muck, is unread, unjudged, unaccepted work. That’s the bottom line; no pro said yea or nay to confirm that the piece was worth publishing. Not that publishers are always right or aren’t missing the good stuff, but what they do select usually has a known value (even if it’s audience appeal over quality) and with a good editor, is polished up even more.
    Self-published books have no more than the author’s opinion (and his/her trust in mom and friends) to support the effort. Sometimes they’re gems but mostly they’re not.

  3. I probably should have specified “novels” when I wrote my blog about the hard realities of self-publishing. I do think that good nonfiction or advice books which cover extremely esoteric subjects (say, a guide to treating goldfish parasites) might have no other avenue for publication other than self-pub. (And that particular title might have a good chance for distribution at pet stores and pet shows.) But a self-published novel has, in general, a pretty poor prospect.

  4. I would just like to add, and maybe we should call this a word of caution to novelists of all stripe, POD, self-published and those published by ANY publisher:
    a book signing is not a given.
    I’m glad to do book signings if they come up, but they’re probably not a terrific use of my time. A bookstore would like to have an author who sells books with their presence. Most authors don’t do that. Even pretty big authors don’t necessarily do that. In many ways, when a bookstore agrees to have an unknown or even “kinda” known author in to do a signing, they’re doing you a favor. Hopefully the favor will be returned and you’ll help sell some books.
    So ANY author, including this dimwit who had a tantrum in the store, shouldn’t expect that just because they’ve written a book that the bookstore is OBLIGED to host a signing with you.
    I personally can’t get past the sense that book signings are sort of anachronistic and old-fashioned. It’s nice when you engage with the book sellers, although I’ve had better luck doing that with drop-ins and signing stock, rather than formal signings. It seems to me that successful book signings are often built on already hot authors or books. It’s rare for a booksigning to create a hot author or hot book.
    Mark Terry

  5. “That’s the bottom line; no pro said yea or nay to confirm that the piece was worth publishing”
    Why should people let themselves be cowed by ‘pros’?
    If you’ve written a novel that you are certain is worth publishing (even though it’s been rejected by publishing houses) I see no reason why you shouldn’t just go ahead and get a ISBN number and self-publish. That is, if you’re up to the challenge and feel really passionate about it. The great thing about books is that it is well within individuals’ means to do it, especially after the advent of POD.
    I find Lee’s view surprisingly myopic, I have to say. Self-published authors are generally aware of the fact that they self-publish their books, but Lee focuses solely on people who are either so unwordly or just plain stupid that they don’t realize they are self-publishing when in fact they are. Because they’ve been taken in by unscrupulous companies that pose as publishing houses when they’re really not much more than (useless and costly) middlemen between writers and POD-printshops.
    The fact that a lot of people are being duped by companies like that does not constitute a case against self-publishing.
    And there is noting disreputable about self-publishing and I rather resent it when people insist that it is.
    And what’s with this “vanity press” label? Is it really vain to want to get published? Not in my opinion.
    I know serveral people who have self-published their books and four of them have used a certain “vanity press” in the US (I won’t mention its name because I don’t want to sound like an advertisment). All were really happy with the service. The books are also very handsome (admittedly, all four did all the pre-print work themselves, or friends did it for them, and the work was picture-perfect in all cases).
    I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing so I asked an aquaintance — a recently retired publisher with tons and tons of of experience — to evaluate the deals this particular “vanity press” offers. He told me they were pretty decent unless I was planning on having more than 2-300 copies printed.
    I rather doubt I’d sell more than a few dozen copies, one or two hundred at most, so I would go with the “vanity press”, no question. Because it’s hassle-free. I deal with printshops on occation (small print jobs) and usually it’s a joyless experience. These establishments don’t much cherish individuals as customers, you’re small fry in their eyes and tend to get less-than-enthusiastic service. So I’d just be happy to skip all that.
    “Vanity presses” really do have a place in the Grand Scheme of Things.

  6. “And there is noting disreputable about self-publishing and I rather resent it when people insist that it is.”
    Since this statement was made in the context of vanity presses, yes there is, and I get flippin’ pissed off when people insist that there’s not.
    THESE PEOPLE ARE OUT TO SCAM YOU. There is nothing about that question that’s the least bit in question, except in the minds of the ignorant and naive.
    If you want to see your stuff printed and bound, and get (wow!) an ISBN number and see it (wow!) on Amazon, that’s your business.
    But Jesus Christ, you legion of suckers, open your goddamn eyes. Whether vanity presses have a place in the Grand Scheme of Things or not, they are parasitic entities that base their business models on the assumption that talentless wannabes will not only empty their bank accounts, but volunteer to become shills for other talentless wannabes.
    That’s their place in the Grand Scheme of Things. Parasites have a legitimate place in the food chain.
    On the other hand, do you want to be published? LEARN TO ####ING WRITE!
    If anyone would like to accuse me of being an angry person, let me beat you to it. I’m angry as hell, first at the lice that run these scams, and second at the waste of money and precious time that naive, idealistic wannabe writers sink into them. You’re not one of those? Fine whatever–but that’s their market.
    Vanity press suckers can scream all they want that they ARE published, they ARE they ARE they ARE!!!, but that’s all it is: Lots of screaming.
    There’s an actual publishing industry. It’s as screwed up as any other industry–and mores screwed up than some–but it’s not evil. There is no conspiracy to keep newbies out.
    Aspire to success. If you can’t break in on raw aspiration, change your approach or your goals. But don’t waste the irreplaceable seconds of your life–not to mention valuable karma points–promoting parasites.
    And absolutely do not expect to promote parasites among those who know better and get away with it.

  7. Ann,
    If you are intent on throwing your money away, I suggest you read Mark Levine’s book THE FINE PRINT OF SELF-PUBLISHING before you choose a vanity press. He examines each self-publishing company in detail and analyzes their contracts, costs, distribution, etc.

  8. I agree with Tess… I think self-publishing is a huge, delusional mistake for novelists. But I think it can be a wise investment for non-fiction writers (how-to, business, crafts, textbooks etc)… particularly if they can sell the book at seminars, speaking engagements, schools, corporate meetings, etc. where they are a guest.

  9. Keith,
    My post was unclear or rather, I failed to mention that if I do my book I’ll self-publish in the old-fashioned sense, the book would come out in my name, not the “vanity publisher’s”. I’m not interested in any of their services either, except for the printing and binding bit.
    I agree with you that many or most of the so called “vanity presses” are scams. They’re pseudo-publishing houses because they’re run by people who have no credibility at all in the publishing world. And are really only after wannabe authors’ money. They are certainly not making money from selling books.
    But they do exist and are apparently doing just fine. Why? One, because they actually do publish books and therefore have every legal right to call themselves publishers. Two, because there are apparently plenty of ignorant people who are taken in and spend a lot of money on the various “services” offered (and innocently expect something in return for their investment but get nothing).
    But I have a lot of issues with all these “vanity press” discussions, both on this blog and elsewhere, because everything gets so hopelessly mixed up. In my opinion.
    Typically, ‘self-published’ is considered practically synonymous with ‘vanity-press-published’.
    It isn’t.
    There is absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing. Itðs a time honoured tradition. Freedom of expression and freedom of publishing are constitutional rights and I find it very odd when people condemn those who self-publish or hold them up to ridicule.
    The so-called ‘vanity presses’ are a relatively recent phenomenon and they’re basically just business scams.
    And why on earth are they called ‘vanity presses’? I’d very much like to know.

  10. “Typically, ‘self-published’ is considered practically synonymous with ‘vanity-press-published’.
    It isn’t.”
    It is.
    Odds are you are self-publishing because you’ve been rejected by every publisher on the planet…or you don’t want to submit your work for fear of rejection. This means that either your book sucks or you’re afraid that it sucks. Bottom line, it probably sucks.
    You want a book with your name on it and you want it now. You don’t care whether it’s actually any good or not.
    It’s ego. It’s vanity.
    You pay someone to publish it for you, so you can see your manuscript — the one nobody wanted to publish or that you were afraid that nobody would want to publish — in book form.
    Hence the term “vanity press.”
    It’s vanity that’s driving the process, not talent.

  11. “You pay someone to publish it for you, so you can see your manuscript — the one nobody wanted to publish or that you were afraid that nobody would want to publish — in book form.”
    “Hence the term “vanity press.””
    “It’s vanity that’s driving the process, not talent.”
    I thought as much.
    Thanks for answering my question.
    This is one of the things that I find really really annoying about these ‘vanity press’ discussions.
    The ‘pseudo-publishers’ are the real culprits, yet invariably all the ire is directed towards the victims, or ‘suckers’ as they are usually referred to.

  12. Anna,
    I appreciate your clarification. We’re still miles from agreement, though.
    The vanity press industry has co-opted the term “self-publication” to the point where I don’t see much point to drawing distinctions.
    “Time-honored” though it may be–and I’d argue that just because people have done something for a long time, that doesn’t necessarily warrant the term “time-honored”–self-publication of fiction simply isn’t that respected. I wouldn’t ridicule anyone merely because they’re self-published; or at least on my better days I wouldn’t. However, the mere fact of self-publication doesn’t demand my respect, either. I have respect for people with the determination to finish a book, and I have additional respect for those whose books are excellent. What is there in the shelling out of money that should merit my respect, especially when that’s usually a sign that the writing is awful?
    No, not always. But how many awful, should-never-have-been-printed-let-alone-published vanity or self-pubbed books do I need to encounter (and how many outstanding, amazing ones do I need to fail to encounter) before I can consider my judgment good enough?
    It’s called a vanity press because it caters to people who want to see their names in print, but who can’t get there by writing something good enough for someone else to buy. Seeing the name on the cover is the whole goal.
    And you’re incorrect; they’re not new. They’ve just become more popular as the technology has allowed both greater sucker-market penetration and smaller profitable print runs.
    You are also incorrect when you say they publish books. They do not publish books, as the word is used among writers, editors, publishers… in other words, everyone in the business. In a broader sense, the work can be said to have been “published,” but that same sense would be achieved by printing it out and nailing it to a telephone pole.

  13. The victims usually perceive it that way, since it’s bound to devalue any talent they may have, so they always take it personally. It isn’t, just business reality. This realization can take months of debriefing.

  14. “invariably all the ire is directed towards the victims, or ‘suckers’ as they are usually referred to.”
    Change that to “shills” and you’ve got the explanation.

  15. ‘The ‘pseudo-publishers’ are the real culprits, yet invariably all the ire is directed towards the victims, or ‘suckers’ as they are usually referred to.’
    I’m with you on that one, Anna. There’s no excuse for people acting like prima donnas because a bookshop won’t host a signing for a self-published novel, and I think it’s reasonable to draw a distinction between ‘published’ and ‘self-published’: I suspect that some of the ire is directed towards self-published people who refuse to acknowledge that distinction, which they really should do – most people assume ‘published’ means there’s a professional publishing house involved, so I think it’s fair to say that a self-pubbed person calling themselves just ‘published’ is using the word misleadingly. If, however, a nice but silly person got taken in by a well-prepared scam, it seems best to place the blame where it really belongs.
    Can I congratulate you on your good manners in the face of being told that your work sucks? 🙂

  16. Nobody is telling Anna that her work sucks. What they’re saying is that if her work really is good, there is a publisher (a real publisher) out there who will pay her (not the other way around) for the privilege of selling her book to customers across the country.
    In that way, the book can be taken seriously, get reviewed, be available in bookstores, serve as a professional credit and basically BE PUBLISHED. A vanity press will not accomplish those things.
    Regards of whether you pay a POD company like iUniverse, create your own company, or get hoodwinked by a company like Publish America, it is all amateur vanity “publishing” — which really is not publishing at all. The business models are different, but there is no fundamental or qualitative difference in the books themselves. They are books that the author thought were worthy of being published — but nobody else agreed.
    All vanity press books, regardless of how they came to be printed, send a singular message to everyone who sees them: “The only way I could get my book published was to pay someone to do it.”
    As long as any prospective vanity press author realizes that, there’s no problem with doing it. But, unfortunately, many of them are NOT aware of it. They are taken in by the hucksters, con men and bullshit artists. They are reacting emotionally to the damnable frustration that exists in publishing; barriers that every author faces, but must overcome in order to succeed.
    Believe me, I understand. I’m there right now, going through it myself. I know how hard it is, how frustrating, how senseless it all seems. But the solution is to keep trying, to keep writing, to get better. The solution is not to just throw your work away, which is all that vanity publishing does.
    If all you’re looking for is a printed copy of your book that you can hold up and say, “I wrote this,” that’s fine. Go with a vanity press. But aren’t you looking for more than that?
    Over the past 6 years that I’ve been a book critic, I’ve seen a lot of vanity-published books. POD, self-published, PA, all of the various forms. In that time I’ve only seen 3 novels that I thought were worthy of being reviewed. Two of them were from the same author (and were subsequently bought and published by Bantam Dell) and one of them, although promising, still needed work in order to be published. None of the rest of them were worthy of being taken seriously.
    As rotten as the publishing industry can be, it’s still better than the alternative.

  17. I agree with a lot of what you say, David. I’m not in favour of vanity publishing. I’ve got serious doubts about the benefit of self-publishing. I certainly never would never have gone that route myself; I bounced my novel all over town till it sold, and personally I would have preferred unpublished to self-published. All I was really saying was that Anna makes a fair point in saying the bad guys are the scammers, not the victims.

  18. I wrote a longish post some while ago but something happened to it, it just didn’t show up.
    I’ll try to rewrite it.
    If this post doesn’t show up I’ll get really pissed.
    I don’t understand why you folks get so upset about all this. I mean vanity presses and their clients. It’s not as if these people pose some sort of threat to well-regarded or pro writers or writerhood in general. So why bother?
    Why all this indignation and outrage?
    Why are these people even on your radar?
    For the record:
    The book I may or may not self-publish sometime in the future is non-fiction.
    I’ve written a pretty detailed outline. I’ve written the first chapter and I’ve written the first draft of about 2/3 of the rest of the book. So the writing is well on its way.
    I consulted my ex-publisher friend and he told me which publishing houses to approach (with this kind of book).
    I pitched the book and it was rejected.
    So the question is, do I forget the whole thing or do I charge ahead, finish the book and self-publish?
    Thing is, I’ve already invested a lot of time in this book. A lot. Thinking about it and researching it. Finishing it, the actual writing of it, would be a pretty straightforward matter.
    So what do you think I should do?

  19. I don’t know that I’m indignant about it… but I do get bothered when I see well-meaning people deluded or outright ripped off.
    As for what you should do with your project… I’ll tell you the first thing your publishing friend should have told you:
    Get an agent.

  20. I guess it depends what you want to get out of it. If money is your primary consideration, or you’re not dripping with spare cash, then you’ll need some kind of business plan to make sure you can recoup your investment. If your main interest is the satisfaction of writing the book and seeing it bound, then it’s a question of whether or not that’s worth the time to finish it and the money getting it printed will cost you. If you’re after legitimate publication and proper distribution, probably you should shelve this project and start on another one you think would be more saleable.
    In your position, I think I might start considering another project, factoring in any feedback the rejection letters may have contained. But then, like I said, I would have preferred not to get published than to self-publish. As it’s your life, it’s probably an issue of deciding which of your personal preferences takes priority.

  21. David,
    “As for what you should do with your project… I’ll tell you the first thing your publishing friend should have told you:”
    “Get an agent.”
    I’m not getting an agent because there is no agent on offer. I live in Iceland and Iceland is far to small to support agents of any sort.
    Ey-up:Thanks for your studious answer and thanks for everything!

  22. Ahem… agents will take clients from anywhere given the right project. Nonfiction is just as bad if it’s even slightly literary and not a straight limited how-to. Since Ey-up seems to be out of town she would know this is possible. Given some of the claims I’ve heard online about being published just who “bought” her novel would have to be spelled out for me to take it as fact.

  23. A quick Google search turned up some literary agents who operate in Iceland, including the Denmark-based Bookman Literary Agency:
    The agent need not be located where you are. That shouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier.
    I was assuming you were interested in being published in the US, however, and my advice was based on that assumption. I hope you’ll forgive that — I wasn’t aware that Lee’s blog had such an international following!
    Whatever path you choose, I wish you the best of luck with your endeavors.

  24. As already stated, you need to differentiate between fiction and nonfiction–self publishing a novel is just a bad idea–all you’re accomplishing is throwing away your book and creating a stigma that you just don’t want. If you’re serious about being a writer, keep working at it until you find a publisher willing to buy your work. For nonfiction, it might be okay to self-publish as long as you know there’s a niche market for the book and you know how to market for that niche–but just be aware that the book won’t be reviewed or end up in bookstores, unless under a consignment deal. Ana, it doesn’t matter that you’re in Iceland–if your book has a large enough market to warrant a publisher buying it, you should be able to find an agent in the US. The following web-site is an excellent one to locate an agent:
    Also, I’d recommend a subscription to the online version of publisher’s marketplace–it will allow you to find agents who’ve sold similar books. However, if you book is geared to a small market in Iceland (or a small market in general), you’re probably right, you’ll be wasting your time contacting agents. I think the rule of thumb for nonfiction is a publisher needs to sell 2000 copies to break even (at least that what it is with computer books), so unless you’re pretty sure there’s at least 2,000 buyers for this books, doubtful any publisher will want to take it on.

  25. You’re welcome, Anna, good luck.
    Mark: I’m sure some people lie online about being published. I’m not, but given that this site is more prone than some others to descend into personal invective, racial abuse and active threats, and that some of the views I’ve expressed here are unpopular (that unauthorised fanfic is unethical, for example), I’ve no intention of sticking my head over the parapet and identifying myself. I’m not as established as, say, Richard Wheeler, I write full time and depend on sales for food money, a hate campaign could seriously damage me, and I wouldn’t put it past some of the posters here. I’m too concerned about getting attacked outside the site. You’re free to disbelieve me if you wish.

  26. Mike, David & David,
    We’re talking a bit at cross purposes here.
    I’m not an aspiring writer. I just want to publish a book. I certainly don’t need an agent.
    I agree with you that a person who wants to become a pro writer — actually make a living by writing books — better be prepared to spend a lot of time learning to write the kind of material that traditional publishers have faith in. It might be unwise for such a person to self-publish somewhere along the way. But then, it just might be a very good idea: Either to self-publish or team up with another aspiring writer or two and start a small press. People do this all the time, everywhere. With varying degrees of success, of course. But managing to get one book published by a traditional publisher is no guarantee of success either.
    But I repeat, I’m not an aspiring novelist and I don’t have a novel in me. Not even a half a novel.
    If I do self-publish my book it’ll be a good-looking one and indistinguishable from ‘regular’ books. Because it’s important that books look good. Shoddily produced books are a painful sight and people are less likely, I think, to give them a permanent home. Place them on their bookshelves, that is.
    Self-publishing carries no stigma, or doesn’t have to. The only people who attach stigma to self-publishing are pro writers. Which basically boils down to haughtiness.
    Readers couldn’t care less.
    Publishing houses aren’t going to dismiss an author because he’s self-published a novel. They’ll dismiss an author if his self-published novel is bloody awful.

  27. “Publishing houses aren’t going to dismiss an author because he’s self-published a novel. They’ll dismiss an author if his self-published novel is bloody awful.”
    If his novel’s so good, how come nobody picked it up? And why is it that the pub don’t care about people self-publishing, why is it that agents don’t take self-published novels seriously?

  28. I’m just saying that if an author comes with some sort of a book proposal a publisher isn’t going to hold it against him if he has self-published at some earlier point. Not if the self-published book is half-decent.
    But I’m sure the publisher would take a dimmer view of an author whose self-published book is just god-awful.
    Self-publishing isn’t something awful that authors need to avoid doing at all cost.

  29. Anna:
    I recommend http://www.lulu.com to you as a viable approach. Lulu honestly advertises itself as a printer, not publisher, and charges nothing to put a book into print and sell it on its website. You have full control over the cover and format, both hardcover or soft.
    If you wish, you can purchase for $150 a self-publishing package, in which Lulu assigns you an ISBN number for your title, lists you or your company as the publisher in Books in Print, etc.
    This company is not parasitic and does not gouge. It would be up to you to perfect and edit your book, and also achieve the typographic excellence you wish to maintain. You would be in full control while dealing with Lulu. Apart from the listing on its website and in Books in Print, all sales would be up to you. I wish you success. It sounds like you are on your way.

  30. Thanks Richard,
    I’m actually planning on using Lulu because friends of mine have had very good experience with it.
    I posted about lulu earlier today, under “The Parasites of Publishing” above.

  31. Certainly Lulu is the way to go if that’s what one must do. Well Ey-up since I’ve been called responsible for shutting down comments at pod-dy-mouth by a troll, I’d say there isn’t much these blog coment people can do to a real person, which I am. If I was published there would be even less they could do. Lee is a good example of that so I don’t find your fears valid. I suppose they could write fanfic about you but that could be wielded like a sword if so desired.

  32. Anna,
    Self-publishing is something that aspiring novelists only do when they’re desperate. As others have pointed out, nonfiction is a somewhat different species.
    As for the word “should,” it’s my opinion that in the overwhelming majority of cases, aspiring novelists should not self-publish.
    I’d like to address your bewilderment regarding the frustration and anger that you’ve encountered. I’ve been thinking about it on and off since yesterday, and I think I can finally express it.
    To you, self-publication is a logical-seeming solution to a problem. To many of us, it’s an ongoing source of frustration, because we’ve seen hundreds or thousands of people follow that logical path–and lose not just their money, but the rights to their own writing.
    People who don’t know how publishing (real publishing) works are easy targets because everything PublishAmerica says sounds reasonable. But it only sounds reasonable if you’re ignorant of reality.
    I’ve spent my entire life with artists of all kinds. I’ve been a gigging and/or working musician for decades, a published novelist since 1996, and I’m currently building a track record as a film director. I’m also married to a classical singer. In every one of these disciplines, there’s a shadow industry designed to do nothing but prey on the aspirations of idealists, using logical-sounding come-ons and appeals to the admittedly very attractive fantasy of doing an end-run around the evil/closed-minded/corporate establishment.
    I’ve seen too many people suckered. That’s half of why I’m angry. The other half… well, that’s my personality. I have a sixth-grader’s sense of fairness and moral outrage. Unfortunately, I can’t take a stand as a perfect, infinitely patient person. I can only take a stand as the imperfect person I am–and that overdeveloped moral outrage blows up when I see yet more idealists being led to the slaughter.
    You may have found a solution that will work for you. But I think you can probably understand that you’re also lending your voice to the support of an industry that hurts your fellow artists. (And whether you call yourself that or not, I don’t know–but by my definition, anybody who creates something from nothing is an artist; or at least as close enough as makes no difference.)
    This is what you’re stumbling up against: Industries of con artists continually fleecing dreamers, and a few of us who are still more dreamerly than we might prefer getting good and righteously pissed off about it. I’ve posted reasonably and levelheadedly about this issue on any number of occasions; you happen to be the one that caught me when I was primed for a flash of frustration.
    The industry is bad for novelists. It intends to be bad for novelists. Being bad for novelists is its business plan. It kills their bank accounts and the fruits of their not-insignificant labor. You may have been unfairly caught in the crossfire in this, an I apologize for my questionable aim; but you may want to step back and look at who’s firing, and at whom, and why.

  33. Keith,
    In an earlier post you insisted that self-publishing and vanity press publishing is one and the same thing. I assume you were thinking about vanity publishing when you wrote this in your latest post:
    “To you, self-publication is a logical-seeming solution to a problem. To many of us, it’s an ongoing source of frustration, because we’ve seen hundreds or thousands of people follow that logical path–and lose not just their money, but the rights to their own writing.”
    Well, as it happens I’m self-publishing.
    Self-publishing means that I am my own publisher and I will retain all the rights. I won’t be paying a cent up front for the printing and binding of my book. But each copy is going to cost me somewhere between 5 and 6 bucks. If I order 10 copies I’ll pay ca $60; if I order 100 copies I’ll pay $600, et cetera. So there is no chance I’m going to be fleeced and noone is asking me to sign away my rights.
    You also say:
    “But I think you can probably understand that you’re also lending your voice to the support of an industry that hurts your fellow artists.”
    This is getting a bit frustrating. I’m not lending my voice to the support of vanity publishers such as PublishAmerica. I’m not really lending my voice to the support of any kind of industry. I’m merely saying that self-publishing can be a viable course of action for a writer.

  34. Mark,
    I’m not sure I understand your post entirely …
    You’re saying that for a book to be genuinely self-published it’s got to be offset printed? That’s completely ridiculous. Printing technology has nothing to do with anything of this.
    You also seem to be saying that I’m not a genuinely self-published author if someone else gets a cut from the sale of the book.
    You’ve got to be kidding.
    Do you think bookstores don’t take cuts? To name but one example?

  35. Read the link. I’m saying you as a true self-publisher own the books and pay for all production costs; pay no money to anyone after the sale. All profits go to you, not the so-called publisher because you’ve already paid the printer upfront. The bookstores get the standard discount of 40 percent. This isn’t part of ownership matrix. This isn’t what happens with Lulu. You won’t stock such a book unless as a consignment. POD is indeed part of it as print costs are high this way. But for those who plan to sell the standard 75 copies as is always the case with vanity press sales as a rule, 2000 copies is a long way off. Offset requires at least 1000 be make it worth the effort and expense.

  36. Sorry Mike, I’m not quite following you.
    With Lulu I’m not really self-published because … because of what?
    “This isn’t what happens with Lulu.”
    WHAT doesn’t happen with Lulu?

  37. I don’t see that Anna is necessarily lending her voice to an industry that hurts fellow artists. She’s making a distinction between companies who don’t pretend to offer more than they do and hustlers who take people in, acknowledges that self-publishing novels is usually a bad idea, and seems to be neither under illusions herself as to what Lulu would offer her nor trying to promote illusions in others. I don’t see what more she can do.
    Mark: as it’s not up to you whether I give my real name or not, whether or not you find my reasons valid is beside the point.

  38. I don’t care what you do with your name. You’re perfectly allowed to have fears others find unfounded and make any claim you want. No proof makes your claims moot though. Those are Internet 101 rules.
    Lulu is not self-publishing in the true sense of the term as it is used in publishing. What lawyer Jim Hansen (Night Laws) did is. It’s a POD-based vanity press. You pay them for services like the others. Sure you set your own price and get royalties on your sales. Self-publishers get no royalties. They get everything back from the sale since the expenses were incurred a priori. It’s not marketed as a scam per se, but neither is iUniverse.
    I don’t see why this is so difficult to comprehend frankly. It’s always the case of the naive making up their own rules and refusing to listen those who know more about the subject, like the publishing lawyer I linked for example.
    I’m not Mike. I’m real and my bio is but a click away.

  39. Mark —
    This was the second time I called you Mike. “Mike” just got stuck on my brain for some obscure reason.
    Look. Self-publishing authors always end up having to pay for services.
    I will be paying for:
    1) Proofreading (obviously not through Lulu because this is an Icelandic-language book. Besides, they don’t even ooffer proofreading services).
    2) Printing and binding. I’ll be paying Lulu for this.
    That’s it.
    Lulu is not handlings the sales. I am (but if I’d choose to sell my book on their website I’d be paying them 20% commission).
    I’ve said this before but I’m going to say it again: I’m the publisher, Lulu is not the publisher.
    Are you being deliberately obtuse?
    You keep repeating that Lulu is a vanity publisher. I’ve yet to hear why. Do you know anything about Lulu?

  40. I’m familiar with Lulu’s services already — and generally have a good impression of them, considering what they do — but I just visited their site to make sure. On the first page, they proclaim “Publish and sell easily within minutes.”
    Since they are clearly billing themselves as a publisher, and not just a POD printer, I think we have to say they are indeed a vanity publisher. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong, per se, with their offerings. But there’s no point in calling them something other than what they are.
    I also suspect that the quality of their product is fairly low. It has been with all the other POD publishers I’ve seen. (Note: I’m talking about the quality of the physical product; not the content.) They just don’t look or feel like real books.
    Ah, it just occurred to me that I DO have a Lulu book on hand. And, as I suspected, it is of the same middling level of quality as the typical POD book. Not awful, but not up to the same level of a professionally-printed trade paperback.
    Again, that might be okay. It just depends on what you’re looking for. From what I’ve heard and seen, if you want to go with a POD outfit to print copies of a vanity project, I think Lulu is probably the best way to go.
    I’ve considering using them to print up copies of my MA thesis, just to have a few lying around.

  41. Hi David,
    I think you are misreading this “Publish and sell easily within minutes.”
    From the Lulu site:
    “If your purpose is to use Lulu.com as the sole retail site for your work, then you are the publisher.”
    “If your purpose is to sell your work on Lulu.com and outside of that marketplace on Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com and other online retail sites, then Lulu is the publisher. This service is called Published by Lulu.”
    “If you would like to be publisher of your work and sell your work both on Lulu.com and on other retailers’ sites, then you may select Published by You as your distribution option.”
    One has an option. I’m going to publish myself.
    I agree with you, POD doesn’t look nearly as good as offset printing. Though it has become considerably better over the past 5 or 6 years. But part of the problem is that self-published authors aren’t really getting quality professional help with the pre-print work.
    If I were really confident of selling 400 to 500 copies I’d have the book offset printed. But my expectations are kind of lowish.

  42. David:
    “And, as I suspected, it is of the same middling level of quality as the typical POD book. Not awful, but not up to the same level of a professionally-printed trade paperback.”
    Apparently Lulu became so popular with European writers, or wannabe writers, that Lulu eventually made a deal with a European printing plant, in Spain I believe.
    This cut the postage costs significantly for their European customers (for their books).
    I have no reason to believe that Lulu’s Spanish printers are “unprofessional” — or the American ones.
    It’s just that the digital printing technology is inferior. And the authors undoubtedly turn in shoddy PDFs a lot of the time.

  43. “I’m merely saying that self-publishing can be a viable course of action for a writer.”
    Yes, it can, if the writer either:
    1. Just wants a nicely bound manuscript for friends and family; or,
    2. Has a reliable way of targeting a narrowly defined nonfiction market. (For example, self-help gurus who sell books from the back tables at seminars.)
    Neither of these applies to people who want to be novelists, and you must understand that your own goals aside, those wannabe novelists are a major target audience for these companies.
    Details aside, I wanted you to understand why the reaction probably seems out of proportion to anything you feel you’ve implied. Did I succeed in explaining that?

  44. As I said at the outset, Mark, you’re free to disbelieve me if you wish. I never said otherwise.
    Keith, just to clarify, do you have an objection to Anna getting her non-fiction book printed by Lulu per se, given that she’s *not* a novelist and presumably would know better than to recommend it to someone who had written a novel? Does the fact that self-publishing trips up many a would-be novelist mean it should be out of bounds for other kinds of writer, in your view? Or are you simply trying to ensure that everyone understands why self-pub is dangerous to novels? (In which case, I’m in full agreement – the better informed people are, the less vulnerable to scams.)

  45. No objection to Anna getting her manuscript typeset and bound. I have some old essays and sheet music lying around that I may organize and have bound some day myself. I won’t claim it’s publication.
    I don’t know much about Lulu. I use Cafepress for other things (mugs, T-shirts) and don’t see why I wouldn’t consider them as a book printer for a couple dozen copies of personal stuff.
    I will never knowingly give any support to any entity that makes the bulk of its profit by lying to aspiring writers, as PublishAmerica does. That’s because I think it would be unethical for me to do that. To actually come around to answering your question, I think it’s unethical for anyone to do it. Supporting a scam artist is supporting a scam artist, regardless of what benefit is derived.
    But I’ll say it again: Most of my explanation was intended to clarify why Anna encountered landmines on her picnic outing.

  46. Keith,
    Yes, you did succeed in explaining that. I wasn’t offended by your outburst. I experienced it as a major misunderstanding.
    And I agree with you about self-publishing, the vast difference between publishing non-fiction for a narrowly defined market (which I’m basically doing) and novels. Lulu-books (at least the ones that are on show on their website) seem to be overwhelmingly non-fiction. Which suggests that Lulu-customers tend to be pretty realistic. Whereas desperate wannabe novelists opt for real vanity publishers because of all the empty promises made.
    But it also has to be said that in Iceland — and I think most European countries –there are booksellers that will accept self-published novels if they’re reasonably good. And it does happen that self-published novels are reviewed in major newspapers in Iceland. So there are more opportunities to get some exposure than there is in the US. But it rarely translates into any sales to speak of.

  47. Publishamerica had a Icelandic operation for a while. Extremely low to no sales is the norm for a self-publication venue of any degree, nonfiction or not. Lulu is filled with memoirs just like all the rest of the vanity presses are. Getting them bound without an ISBN is the equivalent of Kinkos/Fedex copy center. Those can be bought separately as well. Self-pub is dangerous to any literary effort based on the tests. Aim low and you will undoubtably get there as many before have.

  48. It’s a fact. PublishIslandica along with PublishBritanica. They even sold authors a trip there and they went! Not that as a trip it’s a bad thing, but as a literary operation by a scam artist from Holland, well…You can find it over at headquarters in Frederick. Both are now defunct after the Encyclopedia verdict against them.
    Print costs at Lulu are high comparing to regular book printers.
    At Lulu: for 299 pp.
    Manufacturing cost per unit: $7.44
    Total manufacturing cost: $7,440.00 (1000)
    Bulk discount: 29%
    $3310.00 at 3.31 per copy offset
    Anyway you cut it, POD-based companies are ripoffs. Caveat Emptor. Good luck to you.

  49. Mark:
    You just never give up, do you?
    I’m not having 1000 copies printed. Noone in his or her right mind has 1000 book copies printed the POD way.
    Trust me, I’ll consider every printing & binding option. When the time comes.

  50. “So what do you think I should do?”
    Well we told you, but your mind was already made up. Write the book and maybe things will look different. Or Maybe not. Nonfiction books can be pitched for years without exhausting all the possibilities for commercial publishing. I can testify to that.

  51. Ey-up: Thanks for your kind words!
    Mark; Valid point.
    My question was evidently not clear. I was not asking whether I should self-publish or not. But that’s how everyone construed my question and soon everyone and his brother was advising me not to self-publish and got really really upset about my disregarding their advise.
    I have no problems with self-publishing. That ought to have been clear right from the beginning. I wrote about a dozen posts trying to explain to the commenters here that I was not about to get fleeced by some vanity publishing outfit but noone was willing to believe that.
    Thing is, I’m dithering because I’m not certain if I should invest any more of my time in this book. It’s either quit now and cut my losses or charge ahead, finish it and self publish.
    Money is not a problem. The actual cost of having, say, 200 copies printed is negligible and I’ll recoup the production costs. For sure.
    But it’s highly unlikely that sales will be so good that I’ll get paid for my time. For actually writing the damn thing.
    But I was asking the wrong bunch of people. Or rather, I was asking a stupid question because I already know the answer: If I feel passionate enough about this book I’ll go ahead and finish it and self-publish. If I don’t feel like doing it I won’t. It’s as simple as that.
    I was a graphic designer in a previous life, I’ve done book illustrations and book jackets, I’ve worked in layout (magazines and newspapers) and I was once a project manager in a packaging printing plant. So I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to publish a book. And it’s kind of daunting.

  52. Hi Anna. I think you’ve answered your own question pretty well. Let me ask you another one: if you stopped writing this book, would you start on another one? Would being without a project motivate you to think of another one faster, or might working on your current project keep you in training for next time a good idea occurs to you?
    From your last post, it sounds as if you’d prefer to be commercially published if you could get it, but you don’t think this is the book that’ll get you that. If that’s right, then you need to weigh up your long-term goals rather than just thinking about this book. Trying to get published is playing long odds for high stakes, and often it doesn’t happen, but is fantastic when it does.
    It breaks down into several questions:
    1. Is your lifelong goal publication?
    2. Would self-publication ultimately be enough for you?
    3. Would stopping writing a book you think unpublishable speed up the process of conceiving and writing a more publishable book?
    Personally I’d say put this book on hold and start another you think you could sell; you could always go back to it in a few years. But with questions this important, there’s only one way to resolve them – when you’re an old lady with all your life’s accomplishments finished, which course of action would you regret least?
    It’s a big question, and you need to think in terms of your whole life to put it in perspective. After that, you’ll be the best judge of what to do.

  53. Thanks David, and good luck Mark.
    To answer your questions:
    1) I’m not planning on a career in either publishing or writing books. I’m just interested in doing this one book (which is non-fiction). So if I drop this project I won’t be starting on another book.
    2) See 3
    3) I don’t regard the book as being unpublishable. I approached two publishing houses with a proposal + outline and they both said no. They don’t think it will sell. But there are dozens of other publishing houses so it’s not as if I’ve exhausted all possibilities. I have an advisor and he has suggested a publisher that’s “less commercial” and may be more suitable for this type of book. But there’s no point in approaching them, or any other publisher, until it’s finished.
    If the two publishing houses are correct in their estimations this book would indeed sell very modestly. So either way, “properly published” or self-published, I’m clearly not going to be in for much of a compensation.
    I’m considering Lulu in all seriousness but Lulu is by no means my last recourse. Not yet, at any rate.
    Does that answer your questions?

  54. Ah, I see. Well, if it’s the only book you’re ever planning to write, then there’s no reason not to finish it; it won’t be taking time away from other projects. And that being the case, I’d certainly wait until I’d exhausted the possibility of professional publication before I went the self-published route, and consider Lulu a last resort. Two rejections isn’t much; I had far more rejections than that before I finally got accepted. I think David’s right that you might try to get an agent – and my agent, at least, has clients who don’t live in the same country where she works, so that needn’t be a problem. That’s the miracle of e-mail.
    Sounds to me like there’ll be plenty to keep you occupied this year! I do hope it goes well.

  55. Ey-up: I think you’re right, I have no good reason not to finish the book (besides, I just hate — HATE! — starting something and not finishing it).

  56. I’ve had more rejections than that this weekend alone. With three projects completed and under submission the chances are high for either one. Thanks for the luck, but the harder one works the luckier one gets.

  57. I am a non-fiction writer and I just finished my Doctor of Ministry Degree in the area of church leadership and administration. I do not fear rejection, but I did not have time to deal with the formalities of a traditional publisher. I read Mr. Levine’s book and found an excellent self-publishing company. I had already hired an editor; however, this company provided editorial assistance as well. My book looks great and it is a great read. Yes, I did pay a nominal cost for the set up, but I have made all of my money back through book sells and I am doing more consulting jobs and speaking engagements than I know how to handle. My advice to anyone self-publishing is this: Obtain a qualified editor, do not give up your rights to your book, make sure your cover design is custom made, and market, market, market!


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