You’re So Vain – The Evolution of Self-Publishing

book-1068176_640From the time Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1456, people have been self-publishing books. By the mid-1500s, traditional publishing companies were being formed with the publishing company paying the author a royalty while taking on the hassles of production and distribution. However, some authors continued to self-publish successfully. Thomas Paine’s book Common Sense, released in 1776, was one of the biggest selling books of its time and was self-published. Benjamin Franklin, William Blake, and even Jane Austen’s book Sense & Sensibility were self-published.

But over time, the traditional publishing model became the norm with authors working through agents to get their books produced by publishing companies. Self-publishing, while still happening, wasn’t mainstream. The logistics of producing and distributing a book were complicated, and over time became more so. This evolution made sense. But it also meant that there were many authors who wrote books that weren’t getting published. Maybe the book or the story it told just wasn’t that good, regardless of what the delusional author thought. Maybe it was good, but appealed to such a small niche that publishers didn’t think they could make enough profit by publishing it. Odds are that some great books didn’t make it to press because the author gave up before he or she could find the visionary publisher who would take it on. Some people saw a way to make a profit on some of these books. The concept was simple: form a publishing company where the profit came from the author instead of from readers.

These publishers became known in some circles as “vanity publishers” because many believed an author had to be extremely vain to think that the experts on what would sell, the publishers, were wrong. In fact, they had to be vain enough to finance the publishing of the book themselves. These publishers would advertise in the back of magazines and for a price arrange for the typesetting and printing of books by authors who were vain enough to think they could sell their own books. In some situations, they could, but the stereotypical story involved boxes of books taking up space and gathering dust in the author’s garage. In the beginning, these companies might have even believed the authors would succeed, but the reality was that unless they had access to lots of potential purchasers (maybe non-fiction how-to books sold in classes or workshops they were putting on), then they were usually out of luck.

Over time, these vanity publishers added additional services, theoretically to help make the book better (editing, proofreading, etc.) or marketing services. They priced them for as much as the market would bear. Using misleading tactics to sell these sometimes less-than-professional-level services, and taking advantage of the author’s often misplaced faith in the greatness of their book, led those in the know to begin referring to these companies as predatory publishers.

New technology allowing books to be “printed on demand” led to these companies changing their tactics. Not having to require the purchase of hundreds of books to make a full print run meant less-well-to-do wannabe authors could afford the initial costs and then the company could keep selling additional services.

publishing money-case-163495_960_720Of course these publishing companies tried to paint themselves as a legitimate way to get published. They’d go through the motions of “accepting your book” so you’d feel like the publisher had chosen you. However, those who dug deeper and researched would discover the reality of getting published this way. The rule of thumb you’d find is that the flow of money was the key. If the money flowed from publisher to author, things were good, but if money flowed from author to publisher, the publisher was suspect. Then eBooks happened, and that changed everything.

With the advent of eBooks and eReaders from Barnes & Noble and Amazon becoming popular among the most avid readers, self-publishing experienced a renaissance. It was now possible for an author to publish their unedited scrawlings as an eBook with no cost, putting them up for sale on the eBook sites. Anyone could be an author, virtually for free. But readers rightfully expected that if a book was for sale in the online bookstores that they’d at least meet a minimal quality standard. The backlash was quick with some readers learning how to tell if a book was self-published and avoiding those, even now. Reader reviews also helped readers weed out the worst offenders. Soon authors who were serious realized they needed to get some help in order to produce quality books. Often that meant investing money to hire someone with the expertise the author didn’t have and couldn’t convince a friend to do for free. This gave rise to companies offering help, some legitimate. Some were just reworkings of the old predatory publishers, maybe now calling themselves something like a self-publishing company. But some legitimate service providers called themselves the same thing.

The old rule of thumb no longer worked because the author was now the publisher. Money was flowing from the publisher, who also happened to be the author, to subcontractors. For those who wanted to go the traditional route, new micro-publishers were popping up. Some of them legitimate, some of them without much to contribute other than tying up the publishing rights to your book and siphoning off the lion’s share of any profit.

On one of my websites, The IndieView, I regularly ask authors any advice they have for newbies. Recently, indie author Kirk Milson who had his first book published by a small publisher and self-published his most recent book summarized the current situation well, in my opinion, when he said this.

Unless a publisher has the ability to get your book into bookstores, you might think twice about giving up the editorial control that comes with signing on with a small outfit. My first publisher edited out one of the funniest bits in the book because its target audience was prudish. In return, it got the book into Costco, which I considered a worthwhile tradeoff. I’m not sure what advantage a writer gets from contracting with a small e-publisher, since you can e-publish through Kindle and be on Amazon in about 10 minutes. I could be missing something, but I guess I’d suggest that a publisher should demonstrate its value before you sign on.

There are definitely trade-offs and small publishers that I think do well by their authors. We even have the owner of a small publishing company among the IU minions, so they aren’t all bad. But before giving up rights to a publisher or hiring anyone to help out in the areas where you need assistance, in today’s world, it’s important to make sure you do your research. Talk to other authors, make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting for your money. With a publisher, make sure you know what they’re going to provide and that it is worth it. Don’t agree to tie the publishing rights to a book or future books up for a long period.

What are your thoughts?

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

12 thoughts on “You’re So Vain – The Evolution of Self-Publishing”

  1. Kirk Milson makes an excellent point. I know of a small publisher in my area and I’ve talked to him about his services. Come to find out when he publishes for a client, he does not even list them on Amazon. That’s an extra fee. Authors need to do their due diligence and ask LOTS of questions before signing any contract.

  2. Wow. At least in my mind, if a company calls themselves a publisher then the money should still be flowing from them to the author, not the other way around. Of course if they called themselves something else then we’d still have the question of whether that charge is reasonable.

    1. The term I’ve heard is publication services. My old college roommate worked for a publication services company for a couple of years, although in those days she was working almost entirely on getting articles ready for academic publications. They did copy editing and proofreading, as well as pre-press.

      1. Thanks, Leigh. That’s not a term I’ve heard. It makes sense for a company that does the services that you describe though.

  3. A comprehensive rundown for those just getting into the business. No matter which of those models you’re using, it’s definitely a “buyer beware” world out there, and the author is ultimately responsible for all the choices.
    The myth of finding a publisher who will do all the drudge work and let you “just write” is up there with the American Dream in the big scams of the 20th century.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Gordon. That’s one of the things that I don’t think most traditionally published authors realize until it is too late. At least if the stories I hear are representative, the author is doing the vast majority of the work to promote their books. I’m sure those who rise to the highest levels of the game get more help from the publisher, but if your name isn’t Rowling or King, expect to be doing most of the grunt work on your own.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Gordon. That’s one of the things that I don’t think most traditionally published authors realize until it is too late. At least if the stories I hear are representative, the author is doing the vast majority of the work to promote their books. I’m sure those who rise to the highest levels of the game get more help from the publisher, but if your name isn’t Rowling or King, expect to be doing most of the grunt work on your own.

  5. I’ve published 3 books traditionally. Received cash advances on all of them, $5500 on the most recent. The first one sold more than 10,000 copies. The second one didn’t sell enough to get royalties, but did have a $5000 advance. I think I’m about to self-publish my next one..

  6. A good history with valuable lessons for writers. Whenever I can, I tell writers that a publisher is technically the one who pays to get a book produced. Vanity presses are not and never have been publishers under this definition; they are service providers. The author who uses them, being the one who pays, is the publisher. As a publisher, one needs to do due diligence and evaluate what they are getting for the money. And as you point out, even with a true publisher, it’s important to understand what you’ll be getting.

    My wife and I ran a small specialty press for nine years. We were never able to pay our authors a great deal, but we always did our best to produce quality books, and we had access to a distribution service that served our market, so we think we did some good things for our authors. Most of them seemed to appreciate it, and the ones that weren’t entirely thrilled had just cause. (We made some mistakes along the way.) We know from talking with authors about their other publishing experiences that not everyone gave them the same care.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dale.

      Your definition is a good one and I agree, vanity publishers are not really. I think in a lot of instances the vanity press, in spite of looking to the author for money, went through an acceptance process so the author thought they were special because not everyone got picked, which appealed to their vanity as well.

      Something a vanity press often has or does that a legit service provider would not do is their contract might have verbiage to tie up the rights to your book so you couldn’t take it elsewhere and would be committed to them for distribution (at a cost) and other services (at a cost). At least in that regard they are just like a publisher, but haven’t made the investment to deserve those rights.

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