Thursday, June 13, 2019

Why I Don't Want to Self-Publish // Part Two

When I wrote Part One of why I don’t want to self-publish, I hadn’t planned for it to be a two-part post, but I ended up with more material than I could cover in one. I also hadn’t been planning to take another hiatus, and I’m sorry if you’ve been waiting forever to read part two. Thank you for being patient!

First, let me just remind you that the reasons why I don’t want to self-publish can be useful information, but only if you also realize that not all self-publishing platforms are created equal, and that it’s okay to disagree with me. One day I might change my mind and decide to self publish. You never know. So these are just my observations from where I stand.

Someone with no knowledge of self-publishing will likely assume that there’s only one method, or that all platforms are the same. I know I did. In my last post I focused mainly on the logistics of self-publishing—namely, the money—and the dangers of rushing a book that isn’t ready. But now I want to talk about the different options available.

For starters, there are services that offer you varying levels of control, where ultimately the ball is in your court. Case in point: with CreateSpace you can pay for editing services, cover design, and promotion, if that’s what you want. Those resources are optional—you tailor your package. Same with KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). You create the product. You control the pricing. For the most part, you have final say. Probably these platforms will offer you the quintessential self-publishing experience. There are downsides, though. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard authors lamenting Amazon’s various hiccups, from failing to track sales to messing up formatting (please don’t ban me, Amazon). There are algorithms on Amazon designed to keep you from publishing plagiarized material, but I have seen a couple cases where they have gone haywire and wreaked havoc on an author’s career. That alone is probably what stresses me out the most.

Now, if you have your heart set on a more high quality book, say a hardcover with a snazzy dust jacket, you have options like LuLu. With those, you are creating and buying a product, which you will then have to sell on platforms like Amazon, but these services will not always be print on demand, which means you will have to purchase back stock and store it yourself. Don’t forget that means you need to incorporate shipping into the price of your book.

All that being said, I have never self-published. My research has led me to decide that, at least for now, I don’t want to take this route. But we’re talking about your career too, so I encourage you to do your own research and make your own decision.

Before I launch into the evils of vanity publishing houses, another method of self-publishing, let me give some context, for those of you who don’t know a whole lot about the industry. There are five major publishing houses: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Livre, in no particular order. (I remember when there were six, before Penguin and Random House merged.) These houses are commonly referred to as the Big Five. (Is it just me, or does this sound like the prologue of a fantasy novel where the major publishing houses are embroiled in a centuries old war? Nope, just me? Okay.)

The Big Five have imprints—they’re all part of the same entity, these imprints, but they specialize in publishing certain genres. I imagine you could compare this set up to a Portuguese man o’ war, only less dangerous. For instance, Tor is a science fiction/fantasy imprint. Greenwillow publishes middle grade novels, and has a higher number of teenage authors, at least from what I’ve seen, so they were my dream imprint when I was sixteen and angsty. Katherine Teigen is the imprint that published Divergent. Alfred A. Knopf published Eragon. If you’re curious about the imprint for a specific book, look at the copyright page. Usually there will be a line near the bottom that tells you the imprint and the publishing house.

But then you have small publishing houses—also referred to as small presses or independent (indie) presses. These are not affiliated with the Big Five. These are houses like Algonquin, which published Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us. Cash flow defines the separation between the Big Five and small presses.

Both big houses and small presses pay you an advance for your novel, varying in size from four digits (say, if you’re a new romance or ya author) to seven digits (if you’re established and wildly popular, like Marie Lu or Steven King). Then, the houses give you a percentage of the royalties (money made off book sales) based on what your contract specifies, once your advance pays out. But that’s a completely different conversation. However, I would caution you about trying to navigate small presses on your own.

So then you have vanity houses. Vanity houses masquerade as indie presses, and this is your big fat warning not to publish through them. From the outside, they can seem legitimate, especially if you don’t know a whole lot about the biz. (Which is another reason why having an agent is so important—they know the difference and can help you avoid a multitude of pitfalls.)

Usually they will claim to be selective about which submissions they choose. They might offer cover designers and affiliated editing services, and you will have to pay for these. Likely you will be required to cover the cost of printing your book, although models do vary, and while they may offer you promotion services, don’t expect them to make good on their word. They will rarely pay you an advance, although you might have to sign a contract, and since you probably don’t have legal expertise in this field, you might end up signing something nasty and career damaging. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, I would recommend you educate yourself on your rights.

Go online. Google vanity publishing houses. Find ones that have gone under—they are numerous, and if you dig, you are going to find a pattern. It’s not uncommon for a con artist to start a vanity house, bilk desperate customers out of their money, go bankrupt, and move to another state where they start a vanity house under a different name. Look up testimonials of writers who have published through these venues. It’s not uncommon to hear of royalty checks bouncing, or not being sent at all, even though copies of the book continue to sell. To be fair, sometimes small presses (*cough* Dorchester *cough*) will pull this trick, but with less frequency.

“If they’re so awful, Liz, why do they still exist? Surely you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I’ll admit, there are probably some vanity houses out there that will do right by you. In all my research, I have yet to find one. This is what happens: say you’ve tried the agent route with no success, or you’re too apprehensive about the idea of the Rejection Onslaught to even query agents, so you decide to submit directly to publishing houses. Only most reputable publishing houses won’t accept unsolicited submissions. Some of the smaller ones will, true, but you’re not likely to get as good an advance as an un-agented writer.

Then you hear about vanity houses, and maybe they look like a great deal, and maybe you submit to one, and they offer you a publishing contract. All your dreams are about to come true, right? No. It’s not an honor. It’s a scam, and you’re the dupe. Let me be very blunt with you. Vanity publishers exist to make money off your desperation. Look, I understand what it’s like to want so badly to be published that you feel sick. Believe me, I’ve been there. Numerous times. It can drive you so crazy you let yourself get sucked into a bad deal like Full Fathom Five, because you just have to, have to, have to get published RIGHT NOW.

You’ve been rejected so much, and then you apply to this vanity house, with its official looking website and its submission guidelines, and of course you get accepted, because of course they aren’t going to turn away willing money, but you think you’ve finally made it past the gatekeepers and proved yourself.

I don’t recommend self publishing. I don’t. But if you are going to self-publish, I beg you: do not get tangled up with a vanity publishing house. There may be issues with other platforms, and you might have a harder time making money than you’d like, but all those hassles pale in comparison.

Be careful when you’re self-publishing. With a reputable literary agent, at least you have someone in your corner. When you’re going solo, you are your own body guard. Suddenly you are required to be extensively knowledgable in multiple fields—you are the one who needs to be able to spot the difference between a good deal and a scam. There are so many people out there who do not care about your dreams, even if they pretend that they do. They recognize your desperation and see it as a way to make money at your expense, regardless of your suffering. You deserve better than that.

But if, after reading these post, you decide to go ahead and self publish anyway, I wish you the absolute best of luck.

1 comment:

  1. This one of the many reasons why I don’t self publish. You more than likely end up paying more than you make and vanity publishers are so treacherous. I’ve known people who know nothing about the industry who have fallen prey to these and they warn me about it and I’m like, “Yeah I know because I studied this sort of thing for years. Writing is not as easy as it seems.” Very informative post!