Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Self-Publishing: The Good, The Bad, The Really Ugly

I recently agreed to review a book for a GLTB online website. The book, out of kindness to the author I’ll not mention its name, was possibly the worst written book I’ve ever read. I’ve read some real stinkers since I began reviewing gay literature, but this one set a new low standard. Normally if I’m reading for pleasure and I come across a poorly written book, I toss it by page 30, but since I agreed to review this book I felt compelled to complete it. I kept wondering how he managed to get it published. It the end, after finding absolutely nothing to recommend about it, I checked the title pages again and sure enough, it was self-published.

In an era where most of the New York publishing houses are laying off editors and cutting back on the number of yearly titles produced, independent bookstores are closing left and right and chain bookstores are laying people off and counting pennies, there is one segment of the industry that that is actually thriving: capitalizing on the dream of would-be authors to see their work in print, vanity presses (publishers who charge authors to publish their work) are growing at double digit percentages.

As traditional publishers drastically prune their title lists and increasingly rely on established names to draw readers, vanity presses are ramping up their booklists and making money on books that sell less than 10 copies. They are able to make money because the author pays out of pocket for all design and printing costs, marketing cost and even distribution to online retailers. Some, like Lulu Enterprises and CreateSpace, allow authors to create their book free, but make their money with small printing markup and a profit split with the author.

Blooming, Indiana based Author Solutions, who operates IUniverse, AuthorHouse, Wordclay and other print-on-demand imprints published over 13,000 titles in 2008, up twelve percent from the previous year.

The question to ask is who is driving these increases in sales. If you ask a hundred people if they have a story to tell, a good percentage of them will say they have at least one good story in them, or a few dozen poems, or great photos for a picture book. So without needing to develop the craft of writing and armed with new technology, for less than $100, these people can upload a Word file, choose some cover art, and they are instantly “published authors”. The trend is also driven by professional business people who want to list a published book on their resume, or use their book as an enhanced business card. There are also many people who are creating a book strictly for friends and family members.

The self-publishing companies still make up only a fraction of the wider publishing industry. Author Solutions, for example, sold a total of 2.5 million copies last year, where as Little Brown sold more than that on just one title: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. The vast majority of self-published books, something like 85%, sell less than one-hundred copies.

Still, even though self-publishers have amassed the largest collection of bad novels and poetry in the history of the world, we may be looking at the future of publishing. Self-published authors use social networks like Myspace and YouTube to attract a following. And sure they fork out the upfront art and printing costs, but they also get a hefty commission – something like 45% to 55% instead of the 10% to 15% that traditional publishers pay.

Coming back to my original point of reading poor quality work from vanity presses, does it mean that all books that are self-published are of poor quality? No. There are diamonds in the rough out there, though my experience has been that they are few and far between. An industry expert recently stated that perhaps 2 out of every 1,000 self-published books should have been picked up by the traditional publishers. Does this mean we will need to get used to bad writing? No. But if this is the future of publishing, then I suggest everyone do more research before buying, and I don’t mean relying on Amazon reviews…

1 comment:

Michael said...

The worst book I've ever read was self-published. I've also encountered some real stinkers -- some with inexcusable errors -- published by traditional publishing houses that employ experienced and highly-paid editors.

The mountains of unsold volumes on the buck-a-book tables prove that the major publishers invest in a lot of losers.

In view of growing costs of doing business, and depleted natural resources, Print-On-Demand (by self-pubbers and traditional publishers) is an excellent way to reduce waste. If a book stinks, very few will be printed.

Michael N. Marcus