I’ve been thinking about the sudden surge to self-publishing and vanity publishing and the interest I’ve recently seen in various blogs and other places.
Being a suspicious soul, I started to think about why this should be. Not all improvements come because the time has come and it’s right for them. Sometimes the situation is carefully created.
I don’t for one minute think that the big six publishers intend to give an inch of ground to the new ones coming up, the Ellora’s Cave, Samhain and Loose-Id’s of this world. I’ve been involved in a developing market before, used to specialise in it, and I’ve seen it work itself out. Either a new big company emerges to take the profits, or one of the old boys muscles in and takes it later in the day, after others have pioneered. Or the market fragments, and the niches become the thing.
While every new market has a similar pattern, the details are more complex and the reasons come from several sources. With the new emphasis on self publishing, it might not come from the place you can first see, the vociferous place, the authors who are deciding to take that route.
Yes, the market is more open than it used to be. The big publishers have lost ground to the smaller ones, the market is more diverse. The smaller publisher can respond faster to market forces, demands for ‘more books about fairies,’ or ‘older heroes and heroines,’ or just ‘more sex.’ Even more when it’s digital. But many people still prefer a paper copy and many authors prefer not to put their livelihoods at the whim of a big corporation.
But there’s no demand from the public, the readership, for more self-published books. No big group of readers is seizing on a publisher like Lulu and asking for more books. The vanities aren’t growing market share. So where’s the demand coming from? When was the last time you walked into a bookstore and asked to be shown the self published section?
It’s being created. Sometimes a market responds to consumer need, sometimes the market shows the consumer what it really wants, and sometimes a market has to be built by the people who want it. These aren’t necessarily bad. I mean, who knew we needed Windows until Bill Gates showed us? Then yes, it was just what many of us were looking for, computing without all that tedious programming. I was involved in the early years of the computer. I learned (and forgot) four different programming languages, Cobol, Fortran 77, Basic and Diplomat, a language unique to the company I worked for. It was a complete drag. Then we get Windows, early BBC basic and the Acorn computers and we begin to see. It’s the experts who show us what we can have first.
But self publishing isn’t reinventing anything. It’s a book, same as other books. It’s for the author and the manufacturer. As a reader, I don’t care where the money’s going or who published a book as long as it’s readable and it looks pretty good. As an author, I put up my hands in horror at that statement, but to deny it would be foolish. I buy a book, I read it. If it’s in my price range, then I might buy it on a whim, the way most books are purchased. If it’s by a favorite author, I might pay a bit more. If it’s an art book, or something that is a beautiful object, I might pay more still (I do have some breathtaking fashion books – my shiny black copy of the book celebrating Yves St Laurent’s 25 years of design is one of my prized possessions, but oh, the price!)
So here’s what I think. I suspect it’s a production initiative. Think about it.
I suspect that there’s a convincing looking report going around, showing how the publisher can use up excess production capacity by farming it out.
I used to work in the print industry (I was a litho buyer) and print machinery is huge, massively expensive, and deteriorates quickly, as well as taking up a lot of physical space. It’s all expensive. So self publishing, for a publisher that owns such equipment and is looking for a way to use the capacity to take up the loss in bulk production, is a good idea.
And the marketing department has been told to sell it.
Most people know that the old system of oversupplying the stores so that every store has a book available, then returning half or more, is coming to an end. Stores are much more efficient in their stock turnover, there are fewer physical copies going to fewer stores, and the digital revolution is making serious inroads into paper books.
But those machines sit there, eating money.
Renting out time on the press looks like a win/win for the manufacturer. Which is why I think the marketing of Dellarte, the Harlequin vanity press, was so inept. They didn’t look hard enough at the front end. Editors, marketers etc could have told them what the reaction would be, and Harlequin employs some of the best, so my guess is that they were brought in on a done deal at the last minute and had to scramble to make the most of it. They want to keep those machines rolling. So sell it to the punter, in this case, to the writer.
Until that machinery is depreciated into oblivion, it has to make a profit for the company that owns it. The alternative is to do some clever financing, but most publishers have done that already. The production end is separated out so that it doesn’t drag the rest of the corporation down with it. But it’s still there and the parent company wants to maximize its profits.
So the editor, geared to selling to the reader, fine-tuned to deliver what the reader wants and the marketer, geared to making the most of what the company does best, is now expected to sell what the company produces. Which is, after all, how many companies started.
The difference for us is that they aren’t selling to the reader, they’re selling to the author. And that is so different it has to be hived off as a separate concern. I can’t see myself buying a book just to support the author, unless it’s a charity book, where all the profits are designated to one charity or another. The author who really knows what she’s doing can be on to a good thing. She must know the bookstores won’t take the books if they’re non returnable, she’s aware that she won’t have a big company behind her easing her way. She’s worked all that into her business plan. But the author who has tried every publisher and received a rejection from them all, who is being sold this option as a viable way of putting her “unusual, different, they-don’t-understand-me” book out there, it seems perfect. Of course it isn’t, it’s a cynical exercise to sell to the most vulnerable out there. Probably.
I would really love it if in the comments we didn’t get some of the self-publishing evangelists. Yes, we get it, it’s the best thing since sliced bread, a new market, a new opportunity, but this isn’t want this article is about. It’s about where the demand is really coming from and who stands to gain the most from it. And it isn’t the author. If you want to write a piece about how self-publishing has changed you and why an author should take that course, write an article and send it to Sybil (sorry, pet!). Or put it on a blog of your own.
The difference between self publishing and vanity publishing is deliberately obscured by many of the people selling it. For the customer, that is the author, it often isn’t clear until that first statement arrives, but basically it’s simple. In self publishing, the author buys a service, but she owns the ISBN, the copyright and 100% of what she can make from the final product, the book. In vanity publishing, the publisher owns the ISBN, can own the copyright too, and the publishing rights, and to take the Delarte example, takes 50%. So which is the best deal, especially since the author has to pay for everything and doesn’t even get the value of the Harlequin name on the dust jacket?
Let me see…
What does it mean for me? Nothing. I have no intention of going into self publishing in the market as it stands right now, though never say never. Things might change enough for me to consider it. But I’ve had my fill of selling, marketing, assessing markets, and doing everything for myself.
I come from a long line of small businesspeople, long enough to know I don’t want to wear myself out early doing things I don’t want to do. I want to write. And for me, the best option is to let someone else do all the other things. I want to concentrate on the thing I do best, which is the writing end. I could do the marketing, but I don’t wanna. Never did enjoy it very much. So I’ll give a proportion of the income up to someone who will. And will work hard to improve my sales and market share. Sure, I’ll help, which is why I can see the value in a cooperative, but I don’t want to do it all myself.
I just want to write. And read.