Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Buying Book Blurbs? Is That Ethical?

A remarkable debut novel that kept me up all night turning pages. I found this book so engrossing, compelling, and entertaining that I plan to immediately recommend it to all my friends." --- Famous Author of Bestselling Book

Blurbs. You’ve gotta have them on your book cover. At least that’s been the conventional wisdom. So how do you get blurbs? You—or your publisher—send your manuscript to other writers, who you hope will read it and write a great comment that you can put on your book cover.If you’re with a major publisher, your editor or agent will very likely be able to get blurbs for your book from other authors they represent. It’s an insiders’ quid-pro-quo thing.

But what if you’re a new and/or relatively unknown writer whose book is published by a small indie publisher or self-published? Can you send off your manuscript to authors you admire and get blurbs from them?

Not likely. Other authors are busy writing and promoting their own books. And before blurbing a book the author (hopefully) has to read it. Then they have to write the blurb. If they're not doing it as a favor to their publisher or agent or to help a friend or former student, what do they get out of it? Getting their name on your book cover won’t be much incentive given that you’re an unknown author.

Could you maybe offer to pay them for their trouble? Uh-oh! Remember how people feel about paying for reviews? This is probably even worse. Or maybe you could save potential blurbers some time by giving them a summary of your book and some suggestions of what might make a good blurb? An even more ethically-challenged solution (but one that some authors actually use).

Last summer a couple of enterprising young writers decided to throw a new service into the blurbing stew, with a website, blurbings.com that gives authors a different way to get blurbs.Here’s how it works. You—the blurb-seeker—put a digital copy of your manuscript on their site and purchase a seeker package for $20 to $30 depending on how many blurbs you want. Blurbers—other authors or experts in the area you’ve written about—download the a link to your book file, after which they have 20 days to read your book and another five days to write their blurb. Once blurbings.com approves the blurb, it is posted to your book’s profile page and you can use it on your book cover, website, and other publicity materials.

But wait. Isn’t this buying blurbs? If you use this service aren’t you paying people to praise your book? Not exactly. It turns out that the blurbers are other authors like you. In fact you can be one. But you won’t get paid. In fact the site seems to vary between “letting” you write blurbs for nothing or charging you 99 cents for each blurb you write. Why will blurbers work for nothing or even pay for the privilege? Publicity. You get your name, and the title of your book, on the cover of someone else’s book and in their promotional materials.

Ever since a New York Times article last August brought blurbings.com to the attention of the public, the site has been discussed and discounted in blogs and discussion groups as a scam operation where authors pay other authors to go into raptures over their books. The clear message is that ethical authors will turn up their noses and stay far away from such an unethical system.

To me this criticism looks like one more putdown of an innovative approach designed to help authors whose books are self-published or published by small indie publishers promote their books. I haven’t used the site, but after reading all their material, I can’t see anything nasty or unethical about it. If you sign up, all you are paying for is a match-up service. Like any matchmaking service, the service gets all the money from the participants’ fees. But the participants have an opportunity to get what they are seeking—and many of them probably are satisfied with what they get.

It’s not clear whether blurbs from people no one has heard of will help promote your book, but as the site’s founders point out, readers pay attention to customer reviews on Amazon written by unknown readers.In any case, the $19.95 seeker package that covers ten blurbs seems like a small investment to try out this service. I guess I can’t see the harm in trying it. Am I missing something here?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Kindle Your Book

I finally got a Kindle edition of my novel, Too Near the Edge, up on Amazon this week! And I am so pleased. There’s just something so satisfying about having a paper-free edition of my book out there. Once I upload it, there’s no printing, no shipping, no extra costs for the publisher (me) or the purchaser. I love it!It took me a while because the most recent and complete edition of my manuscript was in PDF format (for Lightning Source) or InDesign (used for layout before creating the PDF. In their guide to uploading and converting content for Kindle, Amazon says,” Adobe PDF files are supported, but the quality of conversion is difficult to guarantee.” I optimistically tried uploading the PDF, which looked horrible, then downloaded the HTML from Amazon so I could edit it, but the process was so discouraging that I never quite got through with that editing. So months went by.

But then I discovered April L. Hamilton’s free free PDF guide, IndieAuthor Guide To Publishing With Amazon’s Digital Text Platform And MS Word 2003 Or Higher, which was a great help. Thank you, April. I ended up converting my PDF file to a Word file and doing some rather tedious editing, but it worked. My upload to Kindle looked great when I previewed it.And I’ve already sold a copy! Admittedly the $2.45 I made from that sale doesn’t go far towards paying for the time it took me to convert my manuscript. But now I know how to do the conversion. I went on to convert my daughter’s novel, Following My Toes, which is also live on Kindle now.

And I will continue.With rising fuel prices, hard times at publishing companies, and the increasing focus on green products for an eco-friendly lifestyle, I’ve come to believe that Kindle and similar reading devices are the wave of the future. If I had one, I wouldn’t have to lug a suitcase full of books with me on every vacation, or keep buying bookcases to hold my overflow, or fill my recycling bin with newspaper.

And readers who are downloading books onto Kindle will probably be less likely to care or even notice who the publisher is. I think Kindle will do a lot to level the publishing playing field.

I’ve started to have very positive feelings about Kindle. In fact, while I was messing around getting my book up there, I even watched the Amazon video touting Kindle’s features. Did you know you can search for a term in all the reading material you’ve downloaded? And you can virtually “turn over the corner” of a page you want to remember to re-visit. And the Kindle books cost about half the price of printed books.

I figure I only need to sell about 150 copies of my Kindle book to make enough to buy myself a Kindle. Maybe by Christmas?In the meantime, I encourage all indie authors who haven’t already done so to get April's free guide and get your books up on Kindle. I truly believe it will be worth your time and effort to do it. And you’ll have the satisfaction of putting out a green product.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Top Ten Reasons To Publish Your Own Book*

10. You don’t have to spend months or years composing and sending out queries that you hope will interest an agent or a publisher. Instead you can focus on polishing your book.

9. You don’t have to write synopses, books proposals, and marketing plans that meet the specifications of agents and publishers. Instead you can create your own marketing plan that fits your book and your preferred way of promoting it. And you don't have to write a synopsis or book proposal at all.

8. You can choose the title and cover design that you think best represents your book—instead of having a sales team choose the title and cover design they think will sell best.

7. You can decide what time of year your book comes out. (The one book I had published by a major publisher was released during the Christmas holidays, right before the publisher’s PR team took two weeks vacation).

6. You can maintain the integrity of your book. While editing is important for any book, there is editing that improves the writing and/or the content, and then there is editing that changes your book so much you feel like someone else wrote it. And they sorta did.

5. You can get your book out there in the marketplace quickly. People will read and respond to your book. Isn’t that why you wrote it? Keeping a manuscript in your desk drawer for years while you shop it around to agents and publishers is discouraging, and it doesn’t get you reader feedback or the satisfaction of having people read what you wrote.

4. Your book will stay in print as long as you want it to be out there. Mainstream publishers don’t give books much time to catch on with readers. If the book doesn’t sell well in the first few months, bookstores will return it to the publisher. Soon it will be remaindered and then out of print.

3. You can control the cover price of your book and whether it is hardcover or trade paper. Personally, I don’t see any reason to release fiction in hardcover, except for libraries. I don’t want to pay $25 for a novel and I don’t want readers to have to pay $25 for a novel I wrote. And if you publish your own book, you can buy copies inexpensively enough that you can offer good discounts to small local stores, book clubs, or other bulk purchasers

2. You retain all the rights to your book. If you want to put a sample chapter on your website or give a newsletter permission to publish an excerpt, you can. If you sell a chapter to a magazine, you get all the money. If you decide later to offer the book as an e-book or spin off parts of it into short booklets, you can.

1. You can make more money. You’re going to need to do most of the promotion for your book anyway, so why not get more reward for your efforts? You make very little money per book with a traditional publishing contract. If you are your own publisher, you can, and usually do, make more per book. If you are good at promoting your book, you can do well because you get all the profits.*

Note: These advantages apply to true self-publishers—which is where the author sets up a publishing business, purchases ISBN numbers, outsources tasks like editing, layout, cover design, and printing, and takes charge of the marketing and distribution of the book.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Book-Selling Business Wastes Energy through Antiquated Business Practice

FedEx reported a worse-than-expected fiscal fourth-quarter loss today, which they said is due to higher fuel prices eating into profits. They plan to do as much as they can to reduce expenses. People around the country are also doing what they can to use less fuel. The Federal Highway Administration announced today that in April of this year Americans drove 1.8% fewer miles than a year ago—a decline larger than the only other time in our history that driving declined, which was during the energy crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Yet the book-selling business continues to ship books back and forth across the country over and over again as part of a strange arrangement between booksellers and publishers that allows booksellers to return to the publisher for a full refund any books that the bookseller ordered but has not sold.

Last Friday, NPR did a story on this book-return system that quoted the CEO of Barnes & Noble saying that the returns system is “insane.” That’s certainly the way I see it, especially with today’s rising energy costs and signs of global warming.

Most people have no idea how the book-selling business works. They are stunned when I tell them that a bookstore can order a bunch of books, send them back for a full refund if they don’t sell, and then turn around and re-order them. Bookstores routinely do this. In 2005, roughly 1.5 billion books were shipped to bookstores in the U.S., according to the Association of American Publishers. Of those, 465 million, or 31 percent, were later returned to publishers.

It took me a long time to understand the system, myself. Our stress-management book that we first published in the 1980s was mostly sold through bulk sales rather than through bookstores. Later when I had a book published by a major publisher, I still didn’t know how the system worked. The publisher would send my agent statements of numbers of books sold, which my agent would forward on to me. I began to notice that the total numbers of books sold was going down over time rather than up, so I asked my agent what was going on. That’s when I found out that bookstores routinely order many copies of a book—which show up as “sold” on the publisher’s statement—but then return on average 25% or more of them—which removes them from the “sold” category. To this day, I have only a vague idea of how many copies of that book were actually sold.

Now that I am publishing fiction, I have learned that if I want bookstores to order my books to put on their shelves, I have to make my books returnable. My printer, Lightning Source (LSI), offers me two choices as to what happens to books that are ordered and then returned. LSI can destroy the returned books (a painful thought) and I will be charged the wholesale cost of the books. Or, LSI can return the books to me, for which I will be charged the wholesale cost of the books plus a $2.00 per book return fee. I have chosen the second option, thinking I would rather resell the returned books myself than have them destroyed and still have to pay for them.

To me, this seems like an inefficient, wasteful way to do business. Not only does this waste energy shipping millions of books around and storing them, but returned books must be processed by hand to remove stickers and determine whether the book is in condition to be sent back out to stores or must be destroyed.

What will it take to change the returns system? Small independent publishers like me don’t have the clout to start a movement to abolish returns in the book business. Major publishers will need to stop accepting returns and most are afraid that doing so would result in drastic cuts in their orders from bookstores. And large publishing houses can easily pay for their returns on the backs of their bestsellers. However, a new HarperCollins imprint (see my April 10 blog) plans to make its books nonreturnable. We’ll see how this experiment turns out.

Meanwhile, we can spread the word about this antiquated practice. If more people know how much energy is being wasted by this book-return system, maybe there will be some pressure on major publishers and booksellers to put a stop to it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Good Book Can Rise Above Publisher Bias

Here’s an inspiring story that should encourage all of us authors published by non-traditional publishers. I recently heard from Texas author Tony Eldridge, who published his action-adventure thriller, The Samson Effect, through iUniverse in 2007, that he has sold the film rights for the book to a major Los Angeles film producer. Interestingly, the film producer’s name is also Tony Eldridge.

Here’s what happened. Author Tony Eldridge had gotten some good pre-publication reviews for his book, which apparently resulted in producer Tony Eldridge getting some emails congratulating him on his soon-to-be-published novel. The producer, who hadn’t written a novel, did some research, discovered his namesake author, and requested a copy of the book. He got the book, couldn’t put it down, read it cover to cover in one evening and the next morning made a deal for the film rights.

Author Tony Eldridge is justifiably proud and excited about the film-rights sale. Producer Tony Eldridge is also pleased. He said, “Finding great material is what it’s all about. It’s like panning for gold. You just never know when you’re going to get lucky or where that nugget is going to come from.”Probably most of us don’t have the good fortune to share a name with a major Hollywood producer. So why should we be inspired and encouraged by this story?

Because it’s all about the book! The author’s name may have opened the door, but once inside the book spoke for itself. The producer bought the book because he thought it was a great book that would make a great movie. He didn’t care who published the book. He only cared about the book itself.

Author Tony Eldridge had some good luck in getting his book noticed. But if the book hadn’t been good, nothing would have come of it. Producer Tony Eldridge was open-minded enough to go ahead and read the book, even though it wasn’t published by a mainstream publisher. His reward was finding some great material.

I’m delighted to be able to pass on this story that reinforces a point that I’ve been making over and over on this blog: A good book is a good book regardless of how it’s published. Tony’s success can help all of us who don’t follow the traditional path to publishing hold our heads a bit higher.

Also—I read an excerpt of The Samson Effect on Tony’s website http://www.samsoneffect.com and found it well-written and engaging. You might want to check it out.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Author Breaks All the Rules and Makes Millions. What Should We Conclude? Are Book Publishing Rules Outdated?

Arrgh!! James Frey has a new book out. This time it’s a novel. Seems like a good choice on his part after the scandal a couple of years ago when it turned out that much of what he recollected in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, never really happened. Once his fabricated story was exposed and Oprah called him a liar to his face on her TV show, many of us thought he was finished. “Ha!” we said to ourselves with a certain amount of glee, “If an author breaks the rules, readers will dump him.”

But that’s not what happened. His partially-fictionalized memoir has sold nearly 4 million copies. After the scandal, Random House offered refunds to readers, but only about 1500 asked for one. The Anchor paperback edition is #780 on Amazon today.

He has a new publisher, HarperCollins for his novel, Bright Shiny Morning, (how's that for a symbolic starting-over title?) released yesterday. It’s a book that would embarrass most indie and self-publishers.

Entertainment Weekly calls it a “slack, self-indulgent mess,” that lacks a coherent story, and “never achieves narrative momentum.” They give it a D+ and criticize the publisher for lack of editing. The Los Angeles Times calls it “a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining,” and says the book gives a superficial, lifeless portrayal of Los Angeles.

The writing is characterized by run-on sentences with little regard for punctuation guidelines. Here’s a sample sentence:
“Instead of using his real name he started using the name of his site the more it was printed and repeated the more it was recognized the more people came the more people wrote about him the better stories he got.” 

Yet, Frey reportedly got a $1.5 million advance for this novel, which had an initial printing of 350,000. It’s #25 among books on Amazon today. He was the focus of a USA Today cover story yesterday, and appeared on the Today show.

So much for the importance of quality. If this were a self-published book, it would be held up as a horrific example of all that’s wrong with self-publishing. We independent and self-published authors are told and told that our books need to be as good as or better than traditionally-published books, that they must be well-written and carefully edited if they are to have any chance to compete in the marketplace.

Well I’m through listening to the old guard pontificate about the high standards of traditional publishers. I’m thinking I’d sell more books if rather than spending my time rewriting to improve my book, I instead engaged in some hugely scandalous, sleazy behavior that would get me noticed. Then I could ignore all the writing rules, write pap and get a big advance from a traditional publisher.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fear Restricts Self-Publishing

When I look at the book publishing industry today, I see fear and an inability to adapt to new technology. I see walls that have been put up by authors’ organizations, book reviewers, award panels, and bookstores to keep out the flood of self-published books print-on-demand printing technology has generated. I see attacks on online book review sites and book awards that are open to independently-published books.

This unfortunate reaction to change was described in depth nearly 40 years ago by futurist Alvin Toffler, who put forth the idea that people find the accelerating pace of change overwhelming. His book, Future Shock, published in 1970 described a feeling of dread connected to rapid technological change, and a difficulty in adapting to it.

Today, even though self-published books, books published by family-owned publishers, and books printed using print-on-demand (POD) technology make up a large share of the new books published each year, this change is not welcomed in much of the publishing industry. We are the wave of the future, and we are making inroads. But attitudes don’t change as quickly as technology.

For example, a respected nonprofit website named Preditors and Editors, which bills itself as “a guide to publishers and publishing services for serious writers,” offers some general rules for spotting a scam publisher. They have a long list, which includes the following:

  • The publisher gives no or very low advances.

  • The publisher's books are rarely in any bookstores, particularly the large chain stores that carry books from just about all reputable commercial publishers.

  • The publisher's books have never been seen on a bestseller list published by a reputable source such as the New York Times.

  • The publisher's books rarely sell more than 5,000 books to readers in individual purchases.

Unfortunately, such outdated criteria put most self-publishers and many indie publishers in the scam category. The criteria show an inability to adapt to the new publishing world. They are based in fear and they scare authors away from today’s new publishing opportunities.

I'd like to be able to shake writers loose from the belief that if they can't get their book published by a major publisher, they might as well keep it in a drawer. I’ve seen some very good manuscripts that have been sent out to agents and publishers for years but never picked up. I think that's too bad. I encourage these writers to self-publish, but they fear they wouldn't be seen as "real" authors if they did.

I know how scary it can be to step out onto the cutting edge. Self-published authors are disparaged, stigmatized, and ridiculed by the old guard. My hope and mission here is to change this marginalizing of authors who don’t follow the traditional path to publishing.

A good book is a good book regardless of how it’s published. Authors who rise above their fears can get the books out there to readers. Isn’t that why we write books?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Are Authors Losing Their Special Status?

Even if you love to write, it’s a lot of work to write a book. It takes imagination and creativity to envisage the book you want to write. It takes energy, perseverance, and focus to organize your thoughts and set them down. It takes training and practice to hone your writing skills so your work is readable and communicates what you want to say. Until recently it’s been commonly believed that only a few special people—that revered group known as “authors”—are capable of accomplishing this feat. Most of us knew few published authors, and when we met one, we were impressed.

But it’s different today. Many more people are writing and publishing books. The number of books published or distributed in the United States jumped from 300,000 in 2006 to 400,000 in 2007, according to an essay by Rachel Donadio in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. That’s a 33% increase.

What’s going on? Have thousands of people suddenly figured out that they can write a book? No. Thousands of people have found out that they can publish a book. Lots of people have ideas for books and many of them have manuscripts sitting in their desk drawers. But getting books published has long been an endurance contest characterized by jumping through hoop after hoop only to accumulate a batch of rejection slips. The obstacles to getting published were so well known that many would-be authors didn’t even try.

Print-on-demand technology has changed all that. With minimal investment, authors can start their own publishing companies and have their books printed as needed through Lightning Source, CreateSpace or others. Or, if they don’t want to be publishers, they can have their books published for a fee through subsidy publishers such as iUniverse, Xlibris, and others.

Authors are using these options to get their work published in unprecedented numbers. In ten-plus years of operation, Lightning Source has printed over 500,000 titles from over 5,000 publishers. iUniverse publishes 500 books/month and has 36,000 in print, according to Donadio’s NYT essay. Lulu has turned out over 236,000 paperbacks since it opened in 2002 and its number of new books is rising each month, according to a January 2008 AP article by Candace Choi.

So is writing easier than we thought? No. And that’s the rub. It’s still just as hard to write well as it ever was. Simply writing and publishing a book doesn’t mean it’s a book readers will enjoy, find informative, or want to share with their friends. And unfortunately, now that publishing is so much easier, we are seeing more books that don’t meet minimal standards of quality. I recently searched inside a subsidy-published book on Amazon and found the word “quiet” repeatedly misspelled as “quite.” This is the sort of carelessness that leads critics of non-traditional publishing to label all our books as trash.

Are we all capable of becoming authors? Maybe. But it takes work, training and a willingness to accept and respond to criticism. If those of us whose books are self-published, published by small indie publishers, or published by subsidy publishing companies want our books to be taken seriously, we have to make sure they are well-written, edited and proofread. Take classes, join writing groups, hire editors, do whatever you have to do.

I’ve been a strong advocate for authors whose books aren’t traditionally published. And I will continue to be. I also will continue to insist that books be judged by their merits, not by their publisher. Ergo, to be judged highly, a book needs to have merits.

This brings us back to the question of specialness. I think much of the tearing down of non-traditionally published authors by traditionally-published authors is due to the traditionally-published authors’ fears that when anyone can get a book published, authors lose their special status.

In my opinion authors aren’t special—never have been. Writing and publishing a book doesn’t in itself make someone special. Having a book selected for publication by a major publisher doesn’t make someone special, nor does publishing your own book.

But lots of books are special. And that’s not going to change. In fact, with more books being published, we can expect to see even more outstanding books. So let’s keep our eyes on the ball—or in this case, the book—and honor what really matters.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who Is A Successful Author?

The names that come to mind tend to be famous authors whose books have been published by a traditional publisher, been favorably reviewed by major publications, won prestigious awards, and sold millions of books. A small minority of all the published authors out there. But is this the best or only definition of success for an author?

Success is tricky to define. We seem to have some agreed-upon criteria in our society, mostly involving the acquisition of power and material wealth. But not everyone accepts these definitions. Some people actively reject such worldly notions of success, preferring more personal bench marks.

I became very aware of the difficulty in defining success several years ago when, as part of my day job at Boulder County Aging Services, I conducted a major literature search on factors associated with successful aging. This turned up a major controversy as to what constitutes "successful aging." One popular model used objective criteria, defining successful aging as the avoidance of disease and disability, maintenance of high cognitive and physical function, and active engagement with life.

But others challenged the use of an objective definition of successful aging, pointing out that it omits older persons’ own views of what aging successfully means. To explore this, another group of researchers asked hundreds of older people to classify themselves as either aging successfully or not. Then they compared people's own beliefs about whether they were aging successfully to the objective standards of the popular measure.

The researchers found that lots of older people who didn’t measure up to the popular definition of successful aging thought they were aging successfully—50% of them believed they were aging successfully, but only 18% met the objective criteria for successful aging. And more than a third of those who the popular measure judged as aging successfully disagreed with their rating. They didn’t rate themselves as aging successfully.

Furthermore, nearly half (47%) of those the popular measure classified as not aging successfully disagreed with that rating. They rated themselves as aging successfully.I concluded that the concept of success is multidimensional, and I have come to believe that people’s success is best measured by whether or not they achieve their goals. This view of success is the same one I use in my work as an evaluator of the outcomes of social programs. Start with the program’s goals, then assess whether or not they have been achieved.

Similarly, it is far too simplistic to decide whether or not an author is successful by applying objective criteria like numbers of books sold, awards, numbers of positive reviews by prestigious reviewers, or whether their book has been published by a traditional publisher. If these benchmarks are the author’s goals, then achieving or not achieving them is a measure of that author’s success. But for authors who have other goals, and who are satisfied with their progress, it is presumptuous to tell them that they are not successful based on the number of books they’ve sold, and/or the profit they’ve made on their books.

Authors who self publish often have goals other than profit and fame. Some of these include:

  • Getting the satisfaction of having their book printed and bound for themselves, and perhaps friends and family.

  • Testing the waters to see whether there are buyers for a book. It’s hard to do that when all you have is a manuscript that you’re spending your time sending out to agents and publishers.

  • Making specialized or technical information available to a small niche market.

  • Speaking out on a controversial topic.

  • Learning about publishing and marketing a book by actually doing it.

My view is that it’s up to me as an author to decide whether or not I’m successful. Outside evaluators may judge me by their own criteria such as how many books I’ve sold. But I don’t have to accept their judgement.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Ghostwriters Attack Self-Published Authors

A couple of weeks ago The Penn Group posted a blog trashing books they call self-published. It began with the statement, “Self-publishing companies are the dumpster-divers of the book world.” Of course the bloggers incorrectly used the term self-publishing when they actually meant subsidy-publishing, but either way their allegations are cruel and unfair.

They asked rhetorically, “So, what makes a book so bad that its author has to resort to self-publication?” Then they selected four books that they said answer that question. In other words, they see these four as true dumpster-diver books that exemplify all that’s wrong with self-publishing. They even went so far as to put up cover images and titles for the books—so as, we assume, to publicly shame the authors of these books.

So who is The Penn Group, I wondered, and why are they qualified to make these judgments? I Googled them and to my surprise found this self-description on their website: “The Penn Group is the largest and most successful ghostwriting firm in the country. Our work can be seen in bookstores, libraries, and homes all around the world.” Really? They’re ghostwriters and they’re criticizing self-published writers?

Here’s some of what they say they can do for you: “If you have a truly original story or idea and wish to transform it into a novel, nonfiction book, or screenplay, then you have already taken the first step towards success. The Penn Group's ghostwriter service has a proven record of transforming ideas into published, critically acclaimed works. Our clients are celebrities, top businesspeople, and other exceptional individuals.

So hiring someone else to write your book and then putting your name on it is better than writing and publishing it yourself?

They charge $18,000 to $26,000 to write a full-length novel for you.

This holier-than-thou group of professional writers also has a college-preparation arm that “matches applicants up with writing specialists who guide them through every facet of the essay writing process, from brainstorming to final editing,” and also will “prepare all of your applications with an eye towards communicating what the admissions committee wants to hear.” As someone who has spent most of my life in academia, let me say that this makes a mockery of the college admissions process.

So what about the four horrible books they gave as examples of books so bad that their authors had to resort to self-publication? I was able to find three of them on Amazon. Two of those were published by AuthorHouse and the other by Trafford. I was able to look inside all three using Amazon’s search-inside-the-book feature.

One of the books had no customer reviews and was in need of serious editing. But the other two, while they would appeal only to very specific audiences, looked to be reasonably well-written and edited. One was a very academic analysis of Miami Vice, written by someone with degrees in Art History and Radio and TV Arts, as well as post-graduate degrees in American Culture and Communication. That book had 14 customer reviews, with an average rating of 4.5 stars. The other book was a personal story dealing with issues of sexual identity between two gay men. It had 21 customer reviews, with an average rating of 4.5 stars.

Maybe all the ratings were written by friends of the authors, and maybe the two books aren’t very good. I can’t say because I haven’t read them. But I think I’ve seen enough to be able to say they aren’t dumpster-diver quality.

What kind of society do we live in, where it is acceptable to pay someone $20,000 to write your book for you, but it’s not acceptable to pay someone to publish a book you wrote yourself? Is everything all about image? Should all books be molded to fit the standard-issue mainstream publisher criteria?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—it’s wrong to tar all subsidy-published or self-published books with the same brush. Books should be judged by their merits, not by their publisher.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mainstream Publishing Takes A Giant Step

Unexpected news came out this week from NYC publisher HarperCollins. The company plans to launch a new book imprint that won't accept returns from bookstores and will pay little or no advances to authors. The new HC imprint is an experiment that will try to fix everything that’s wrong with the publishing business, according to the 51-year-old publisher who will head it—Robert S. Miller, founder of Disney’s Hyperion adult books division.

Wow. Fix everything that’s wrong with the publishing business. That’s a big chunk to bite off. But HarperCollins seems to have more of a future orientation than many mainstream publishers. I visited their website and found the following self-description, “Consistently at the forefront of innovation and technological advancement, HarperCollins is the first publisher to digitize its content and create a global digital warehouse to protect the rights of its authors, meet consumer demand and generate additional business opportunities.”

So HC is already using POD printing, at least for their backlist. Now they’re going to experiment with eliminating other sacred cows of the publishing business.

Instead of paying author advances, the new imprint will share its book sale profits with authors, possibly offering a 50-50 profit-sharing. It also plans to release electronic books and digital audio editions of all its titles.

The changes this imprint plans for bookstores are huge. Not only will the books be non-returnable, the imprint plans to focus its sales efforts on the Internet rather than paying for premium display space at the front of bookstores.

Not surprisingly, authors whose books are published by traditional publishers aren’t looking favorably at this HC experiment. Criticisms that I’ve read on group discussion lists and blogs include:

  • This shifts the risk to the author away from the publisher. If your book doesn't sell, you don't make a dime.

  • Bookstores won’t stock these books unless they are by big-name authors. Why would the bookstores treat this HP imprint any differently from other publishers who don't take returns?• Bookstores will order fewer of these books, which means fewer will sell and authors will make less from their books.

  • This is not a new publishing model, it’s a scam on authors.

  • A 50-50 split of profits is complicated because it depends on how “profits” are defined.

  • The larger the advance, the harder the publisher works to recoup it. Publishers who lay out nothing for a book have no vested interest in pursuing its success.

But I think HC’s new imprint is great news for those of us who are small, independent presses and /or self-publishers. It goes a long way in blurring the lines between us and them. The publishing business is morphing into a new entity as quickly and quietly as the faces on one of those websites that lets visitors click and combine two faces into one new one. Sure this is a small imprint that plans to release maybe 25 titles a year, according to articles announcing the move in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. But is a move by a major publisher. HarperCollins’ revenues top $1 billion annually.

This trial run will surely make the old guard sit up and take notice. Now some authors published by an imprint of a major publisher won’t meet the criteria for awards, reviews, and conferences that require that authors receive specific levels of advances for their books and that the books be returnable. And who knows, HC may decide to use digital printing for some of these non-returnable books. If so, these authors wouldn’t meet some minimum-print-run requirements. How long can the old guard stick with these criteria when a major publisher is ignoring them?

And this could be the beginning of the end of the inefficient return system favored by bookstores who can order huge quantities of new titles and then send them back if they don’t sell quickly. If we didn’t have that system, books sold would actually mean books sold. When we get a big book order, we could rejoice instead of living in dread of having dilapidated books bounce back at our expense. And booksellers who have purchased the books they have in stock are probably more likely to hand-sell them.

Stay tuned. The tipping point approaches.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Amazon Power Play

This Monday, Amazon unleashed a firestorm with its announcement that it will now require that all print-on-demand (POD) books be printed inside Amazon's own fulfillment centers by its own print-on-demand subsidiary, BookSurge. Why? In a March 31, “open letter to interested parties” Amazon justifies its decision as follows:
“Modern POD printing machines can print and bind a book in less than two hours. If the POD printing machines reside inside our own fulfillment centers, we can more quickly ship the POD book to customers—including in those cases where the POD book needs to be married together with another item. If a customer orders a POD item together with an item that we're holding in inventory—a common case—we can quickly print and bind the POD item, pick the inventoried item, and ship the two together in one box, and we can do so quickly. If the POD item were to be printed at a third party, we'd have to wait for it to be shipped to our fulfillment center before it could be married together with the inventoried item.… Simply put, we can provide a better, more timely customer experience if the POD titles are printed inside our own fulfillment centers. In addition, printing these titles in our own fulfillment centers saves transportation costs and transportation fuel.” 

As an aside, I have to say I find this shipping-everything-in-one box justification strange. I recently ordered (in one Amazon order) five items for my three-year-old grandson (one book and four toys). The items were shipped in four separate shipments, within a day of each other. I saw this as a huge waste of packing materials and fuel—which bothered me not only because it’s bad for the environment, but also because (full disclosure here), I’m an Amazon stockholder.

It looks like the Amazon move is aimed directly at eliminating competition from the largest print-on-demand printing company, Lightning Source (LSI).

Publishers who use LSI to digitally print their books and don’t want to switch all their printing to Amazon’s BookSurge are offered two choices in the Amazon letter:

  1. Use BookSurge just for those units that ship from Amazon and continue to use a different POD service provider for distribution through other channels; or

  2. Use a different POD service provider for all your units, and pre-produce five copies of each title and send those in advance to the Amazon Advantage Program for in-stock inventory.

Publishers who choose option #1 (use Amazon’s POD company, BookSurge to print all books that ship directly from Amazon), face an unpleasant situation.

  • BookSurge has a reputation for printing low-quality books, with pages falling out, missing pages, etc.

  • BookSurge’s printing prices are higher than LSI’s, so the publisher and/or author will earn less per book sold.

  • Publishers will have to modify the files they have set up for LSI because those files aren’t compatible with BookSurge’s specifications.

  • Because BookSurge does not offer Ingram distribution, which is virtually essential for bookstore sales, publishers will want to continue to have their books available for printing though LSI, which provides the Ingram distribution. Using two printing companies means extra formatting and extra fees.

Publishers who choose option #2 (stay with LSI for all their book printing) would have to participate in the Amazon Advantage Program to sell books directly through Amazon. To do that, they will have to print and ship copies of their books to Amazon for them to warehouse and ship to customers. And they will have to pay Amazon $29.95 per year plus 55% of the list price of each book sold.

It not clear at this point whether Amazon intends to impose the new requirement on all publishers that use POD printing, which would include thousands of small presses, or if they are primarily targeting the subsidy (author services) publishing companies that use digital printing. I haven’t heard yet of any small independent publishers that have been affected by the new Amazon policy.

The story was originally broken by Angela Hoy, co-owner of BookLocker.com, in her ezine, WritersWeekly.com. She has continued to follow the story with frequent updates on a special WritersWeekly page. One of her most recent updates says that AuthorHouse/iUniverse has reached an agreement with Amazon to allow Booksurge to print their books.

Apparently AuthorHouse had originally refused to comply with Amazon’s demands, with the result that their book listings on Amazon had their buy buttons removed. This meant that a customer who wanted to buy one of the books would have to buy it from one of the marketplace vendors and the book wouldn’t qualify for Amazon’s free shipping offer. I checked some AuthorHouse book listings on Amazon earlier today (Wed 4/2) and the buttons were gone. Then after I heard about AuthorHouse reaching an agreement with Amazon, I checked again and the buttons were back.

My tiny publishing company has three books printed through the POD printing company, Lightning Source (LSI). I haven’t heard anything from Amazon saying that I should switch to BookSurge for printing, and the listings for our books are unchanged. I did get an email letter today from LSI President & CEO, J. Kirby Best, which said that LSI is following the discussions about Amazon requiring publishers to use BookSurge for their POD books in order to sell on Amazon, and reassured LSI cutomers that our titles are available to Amazon.com for shipment within 24 hours.This situation is changing way too fast to draw any conclusions. So what can we do besides follow the story and hope for the best?

  • Some authors and publishers are circulating an online petition "Stop the BookSurge Monopoly," that has 600+ signatures. Personally I haven’t signed it, because the originator is anonymous. But some of you may want to.

  • Some authors and independent publishers are removing links to Amazon from their websites and sending customers to BarnesandNoble.com instead.

  • Some are trying to work through the professional organizations PMA (The Independent Book Publishers Association) and SPAN (The Small Publishers Association of North America) in hopes they will join together, question Amazon on behalf of their members, and advocate for their members’ interests.

  • • Some are contacting Amazon officers and directors to express their displeasure and to let the directors know they will no longer buy from Amazon.

I’m still in the watch-and-wait camp right now. And maybe I should sell my Amazon stock?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is Winning A Book Award A Big Deal?

Last week Reader Views announced the 2007 winners of its annual literary awards. The Reader Views award contest is open only to writers who self-publish or have their books published by a small press or independent book publisher. Work published by major book publishers, their subsidiaries, or their imprints are not eligible. This seems more than fair, given that there are so many award contests that are not open to those of us whose books are self-published, subsidy-published, or published by small, indie publishers.

But does an award set up for the likes of us mean anything?

I was unpleasantly surprised when one of the list gurus on a self-publishing discussion group I belong to posted a comment calling the Reader Views Awards a Special Olympics for subsidy-published books—based on the fact that none of the award winners were books published by large publishers, which the poster took to mean the contest hadn’t attracted any real competition. (Since books from major publishers are not eligible to enter the contest, it’s not surprising that no winners were from major publishers.) This post went on to criticize the contest for having too many award categories and too many winners, and dubbed it primarily a money-maker for the sponsor because it charges an entry fee. The post concluded that the award is hardly of the quality of a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award (duh!) and that being the "best of the worst" is hardly impressive.

I am familiar with this view of book awards that are open to non-major-published authors like me. Last year my novel, Too Near The Edge, won an IPPY award, which I discovered is also considered second-rate when I tried to use it to get “author status” at the Left Coast Crime (LLC) Convention. The LLC does not give author status to authors whose books are self-published, but the conference website said they would consider making exceptions for authors whose books had been shortlisted for certain mystery awards. Even though the IPPY wasn’t on their list of awards, I wrote them a very polite email asking if it would qualify me to be an author at their conference. They replied that I didn't meet the eligibility requirements and that awards like the IPPY are not on the list, "since they are primarily awarded to authors from non-traditional publishing houses."

Given these attitudes, is it worth sending off our books and entry fees to competitions designed to honor the best among self-published books or those published by small, independent presses? Some of these, in addition to the Reader Views and the IPPYs are the Benjamin Franklin Awards, the Writers Digest International Self-Published Book Awards, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards, and the National Indie Excellence Awards. All of these award contests have entry fees and multiple categories for entrants.

Yes. In my opinion the awards have meaning. For me the IPPY was an acknowledgment that a reader or readers selected to judge a book contest decided my book was of a high enough level of quality to win an award. And, although the contest had many categories, it also had thousands of entries, most of which did not win. I don’t know the statistics for these other contests, but it seems likely that there are more losers than winners, and that awards are only given to books that meet certain criteria.

The IPPY didn’t help me get media attention, despite the efforts of a local publicist, nor did it get me new reviews. But it did help me get my book into local independent bookstores, where I believe the award stickers give it credibility that leads to sales. And it helped my friends, family, and colleagues see me as a “real” writer, despite the fact that I published my own book.

A couple of authors on another discussion list I belong to are first-place winners in this year’s Reader Views Awards. They are delighted to have their books recognized, and have received many congratulations from other authors on the list, including me.

Awards help books stand out from the pack. And most potential readers will give a book a second look if it has won an award—even if the award is a minor one.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How Are You Celebrating Small Press Month?

March is small press month. Did you know that? I didn’t until this week, even though I own a small press. I found out about small press month when I went to the website of PMA—The Independent Book Publishers Association—an organization to which my publishing company, PMI Books belongs. But I don’t recall hearing anything about it before that.

According to its website, small press month is an annual celebration of the independent spirit of small publishers. As a small publisher, I am delighted to find out that we have a month and a website devoted to celebrating us. The small-press-month sponsors, of whom PMA is one, have arranged celebration events in large cities around the country.

Small press month even has an official quote from prominent American novelist, Walter Mosley, widely recognized for his crime fiction. Mosley’s official small-press-month quote says:
"The life’s blood of contemporary and modern literature is in the custodianship of so-called small publishers. Without them, there is no future for literature." 

Apparently this is the 12th year for the celebration of small press month. I’m wondering why I hadn’t heard about it before and why it isn’t a much bigger deal. There are lots of us small, independent publishers out there. The most recent statistics I could find on the Bowkers website reported that in 2005 their Books In Print data represented input from 81,000 publishers in the U.S. We know how few large traditional publishers remain after so many of them have bought each other up. So we small indies must be 80,000+ strong in this country alone.

If we look at our accomplishments, we have a lot to celebrate. Publishing is not a simple job. We’ve had to learn about ISBN numbers, book design and layout, printing, getting reviews, promotion, distribution, copyright law and more. And many of us who own small presses also write some or all of the books we publish.

So why aren’t we all out there tooting our horns and wearing buttons that say, “I’m proud to be an independent publisher”— or even “I’m proud to be a self-publisher”? I think it’s because we hear so many derogatory comments about publishing our books ourselves or through a small indie publisher that we aren’t proud. Deep down we accept what the old guard tells us—that having our books published through a major traditional publisher is better. Even though as new or mid-list authors we know we will get little or no promotion from a major publisher, and even though with a major publisher our books are likely to be quickly out of print, we continue to fall for the idea that having our books published by a major publisher is much better.

It’s hard to celebrate being something that others disparage. But we small publishers vastly outnumber the big guys. We’re changing the publishing industry and we shouldn’t be ashamed or apologetic about our business model. If more of us speak out about and celebrate what we do, we will help all small independent presses be seen as respectable publishers whose books deserve equal opportunity in the marketplace. Happy small press month!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rejection of Digitally Printed (POD) Books: A Step Backward for the Publishing Industry and the Environment

POD stands for print-on-demand. It is exactly what it sounds like—a method of short-run printing that allows a publisher to print only the number of books ordered.

There is no such thing as POD publishing. Some publishers use POD printing for some of their books, and offset printing for others. Some use POD printing for all their books. Some use both POD and offset printing for the same books, depending on the size of the orders.

What is a POD book? It's a book that was printed by a digital printer rather than an offset printer. POD is simply a technology. As such, it has nothing to do with anything about the book except the printing. Most people can't tell whether a book was printed offset or digitally.

For me as a self-publisher, POD was a welcome innovation. We had long since tired of storing thousands of books in our attic, but wanted to keep our popular stress-management book in print. By using POD printing, we can have books printed as they are ordered and sent directly from the printer to the customer.

Printing books using POD technology has a number of advantages. Here are some of them:

  • Prevents the waste of ending up with thousands of unsold books—many of which (including books from large traditional publishers) are shredded.

  • Saves money on storage.

  • Cuts up-front costs, which makes it easier for a small, independent publisher to test the market for new books.

  • Allows for quick no-waste changes to a book's cover (to add new blurbs or reviews) and/or interior (to correct errors) because the publisher doesn't have thousands of books already printed.

  • Provides a cost-effective way to keep small-market niche books in print and to bring back out-of-print books.

The main disadvantage of POD printing is its cost. Obviously it's going to cost more to print a few books at a time than it is to print a thousand or more books at a time. We don't make as much money on our book sales as we did with offset printing, but we are happy to make that trade in order to eliminate the hassle of storing and shipping books.

The trade I'm not happy to make is the negative meaning that is being attached to POD printing. Here's an example. Last week Sisters In Crime (SinC), an organization that was founded to combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, informed its members that its board has voted to change the criteria for books included in the printed version of SinC Books In Print (BIP). They plan to include only printed books "that meet established marketplace standards"—which they say are "books that are accepted by booksellers and librarians." They say they are making this change "because these same booksellers and librarians have told us they no longer find the BIP useful in its present form."

According to the SinC board, in order to meet marketplace standards and appear in the printed version of BIP, a book must: be returnable; be offered at standard industry discounts; be available through a national wholesaler, such as Ingram or Baker & Taylor; be competitively priced; and have a minimum print run of 1,000 copies.

I understand and do not object to the first four criteria. But requiring a minimum print run of 1,000 copies is nothing more than a way of excluding books printed with POD technology. SinC explains this requirement as follows: "We believe that the minimum print run of 1,000 copies shows a publisher's intent to place the book in the marketplace. It is the same number used by Authors Coalition to determine a 'published book."

The SinC board made this decision without asking for input from its members, many of whom have books published by small independent publishers who may use POD printing or by subsidy publishers who definitely use POD printing. (See my Jan 17 post for more about SinC authors.)

It makes no sense to me that the SinC board has decided to evaluate my business model rather than my books. As a small, independent publisher, I think I should be able to decide how many copies of a book I want to print, without that number having negative consequences for the book.

Oddly, in many cases having items made individually is seen as a plus—for example, designer clothing, cars, or jewelry. Yet in the case of books, mass production is apparently seen as a major indicator of quality.

In today's world as we try to conserve resources, save space, and eliminate waste, why print thousands of copies of a book you don't have thousands of orders for? Why not print them as you need them? This rejection of digital printing by the old guard is a step backward for authors and publishers everywhere.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Results of the Survey of Authors Who Have Used Subsidy Publishers

  • I created a 25-question online survey that asked authors who have published with subsidy publishers about their experiences with those publishers and about how their books turned out. I posted announcements on this blog and on fifteen author discussion groups, forums and/or websites asking authors to complete the survey.

Respondents: Who filled out the survey?

  • Sixty-two (62) authors filled out the online survey. The majority (55%) have published only one book through a subsidy company. Another 21% have published two such books, and the remaining 24% have three or more subsidy-published books. For the purposes of this survey, authors were asked to answer the questions based on only one of their subsidy-published books.

  • The authors represented a variety of subsidy publishing companies, including Authorhouse, Booklocker, Booksurge, Cold Tree Press, CreateSpace, Diggory Press, Dog Ear, iUniverse, Jorlan, Living Waters, Lulu, Morgan James, Outskirts, PageFree, Trafford, Virtual Bookworm, and Xlibris. By far the largest group (39%) published through iUniverse.

Did the authors think they got a good value for their money with subsidy publishing?

The majority of authors who responded to the survey rated the costs of publishing their book as reasonable; said they were satisfied with the layout and printing of their book; and said they were at least somewhat satisfied with the customer service they received.

  • "How would you rate the cost of the services provided by that publishing company?" The majority (58%) rated the costs as reasonable—a better than average or unusually good value. Only 16% said the costs were unreasonably high.

  • "How satisfied are you with the layout and printing of the book?" More than half (53%) said they were very satisfied, and another 26% said they were somewhat satisfied. Only 14% were somewhat or very dissatisfied.

  • "How satisfied are you with the customer service you received during the production of the book?" More than a third (36%) said they were very satisfied, and another 40% said they were somewhat satisfied. Only 15.5% were somewhat or very dissatisfied.

Did the authors get the promotion they expected to get from their subsidy publishers?

  • "Did you purchase a marketing package from your publishing company?" Very few (11%) said they did so; 89% said they did not purchase a marketing package.

  • "Would you say that the level of promotional support you received for the book met your expectations?" The majority (54.5%) said yes; nearly a third (30.9%) said no; and the remaining 14.5% said they were unsure.

How successful are the authors' subsidy-published books?

  • Copies Sold. Approximately one-fifth (19%) of the authors said that their book has sold 500 or more copies. Another fifth (19%) have sold 351-500 copies. Slightly more that two-fifths (43%) have sold 76-350 copies; and the remaining fifth (19%) have sold 75 or fewer copies. The most copies reported sold was 12,000.

  • Reviews. The majority of authors (74.1%) said their book had been reviewed at least once. One-fifth (20.5%) said their book had gotten eight or more reviews; one-fifth (20.5%) said between five and seven reviews; another 28% had gotten either three or four reviews; and the remaining 31% had gotten one or two reviews. The vast majority (87.2%) said that all their reviews resulted from their own efforts rather than the efforts of their publishing company. When the authors asked reviewers to review their books, more than a third of them (38.5%) got reviews from half or more of the reviewers they asked. About a quarter (23.1%) got reviews from fewer than 10% of the reviewers they asked.

  • Bookstores. More than half (56.6%) of the authors said they have been able to get bricks-and-mortar bookstores to carry their book. However, most had their books carried by only a few bookstores.

  • Profits. If making a profit or even recovering the publishing costs is used as a measure of success, the picture is not good. Fewer than half of the authors have recovered their costs and only 22% have made a profit.

Would they subsidy-publish again or recommend it to other authors?


  • The authors have mixed feelings about whether they would use the subsidy publisher they used for this book to publish another book—43% said they would; 22% said it depends; and 35% said they would not.

  • When asked whether they would recommend this publisher to another author, responses were again mixed—46% said yes; 33% said it depends; and 20% said no.

Conclusions. The authors who responded to this survey paint neither a rosy nor an ugly picture of subsidy publishing. While many were dissatisfied with some aspects of their experience, overall more were satisfied than dissatisfied. The majority thought the costs were reasonable, were satisfied with the layout and printing of their book, and with the customer service they received. The majority also said that the level of promotional support they received from the publishing company met their expectations. The majority did get their book reviewed and were able to get it into a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. However, the majority have sold 200 or fewer copies of their book, and fewer than half have recovered their costs.Although a few authors' comments indicated that they were naïve going in to the process, this survey does not support the belief that most unwittingly sign on with predatory companies and later regret their choices. Overall, they appear to have a realistic, if mixed, view of subsidy publishing. Only about a third of the authors said they definitely would not use the same subsidy publisher again, and only a fifth said they would definitely not recommend the company to another author. The authors who responded to this survey seem to see this method of publishing as a more complex and varied option than its critics describe.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why Ask Subsidy-Published Authors What They Think?

My survey of authors who have had books published by a subsidy publisher—such as Trafford, iUniverse / AuthorHouse, Outskirts Press, Bookstand Publishing, Infinity Publishing, and others that charge authors a fee to publish their books—was designed to find out how these authors view that experience. But it has generated heated arguments on some discussion lists. (If you've had a book published by a subsidy publisher and you haven't filled out the survey, you can click here to fill it out.)

Experts in the self-publishing business have been particularly vocal about the futility of conducting a survey on this topic. Here are some of their criticisms:

  • Instead of surveying authors about their experiences with subsidy publishers, I should survey booksellers, reviewers and librarians about how they view subsidy presses. Such a survey would reveal the subsidy-published stigma that keeps these books from being reviewed, sold in bookstores, or purchased by libraries.

  • I don't need to survey authors because experts already know what I will find out—the books are poorly done, the authors lose money and the only beneficiary is the subsidy-publisher. The many instances of poorly-written, unedited, badly designed subsidy-published books is evidence of their unprofessional quality, which shows that authors should not use this publishing choice. Although authors may like the convenience of using a subsidy publisher, the costs are so high that it is a poor business choice.

  • The survey is unscientific because the respondents aren't a random sample of the population of subsidy-published authors. The results are likely to be skewed and will not be statistically significant.

  • The author's satisfaction doesn't matter. The criteria for judging an author's success is number of books sold, and/or profit made on the book. Furthermore, any authors whose books sell well enough to meet the criteria for success are not typical and their success doesn't invalidate the argument against subsidy publishing.

  • Authors who fill out the survey may not know their own minds. Many of these authors are so naïve and want so desperately to be published that they don't realize they've been taken, but actually think they are satisfied.

  • Even though some authors may be satisfied with their experience with a subsidy publisher, it's not good to share this because it may encourage new authors to choose a publishing method that is a bad choice for most.

I haven't analyzed the survey data yet, because the survey is still open. I'd like to give as many subsidy-published authors as possible a chance to give their opinions by filling it out.

But I do have some responses to the experts' points:

  • I think they may not be clear about what I'm trying to find out. We already know a lot about how the industry views subsidy presses.

  • I want the authors to speak for themselves so we can see what their experiences have been and whether or not they think they made a good choice.

  • I am well aware that the survey respondents are not a random sample of the population of subsidy-published authors, but I can't do a random sample without a comprehensive list of subsidy-published authors. I'm not aware of such a list and I don't want to go through subsidy publishers to get lists, as that would probably introduce more bias. Also, there are privacy considerations with anyone giving out lists.

  • This survey uses a convenience sample, which will give us a picture of one self-selected group of authors' perspectives and experiences, in the same way that a focus group would. In an attempt to get diverse participation I have posted an invitation to complete this survey on 15 online author discussion groups, forums and/or websites.

  • As far as the likelihood of results being skewed, it would seem that if in fact authors' experiences are as universally negative as the experts believe, and if authors who have had negative experiences are as vocal as the experts say they are, any skewing would be in the negative direction.

  • I don't see how anyone can argue on the one hand that if you are a subsidy-published author who has seen the light and realized how bad things are for you and your book, then your comments mean something; but on the other hand if you are a satisfied subsidy-published author, you are naïve and deluded and your responses can't be taken seriously.

Note: Confusion about the terms self-published, subsidy-published and POD continues to be a major problem in discussing this issue. I've had to include the term POD in some of my posts announcing the survey because subsidy publishers are so commonly called POD publishers. To be clear, POD (print-on-demand) is not a type of publishing. It is a printing method, using digital technology. Any publisher can use it and many do. A self-published author has started a business, purchased ISBN numbers, and published his/her own books. A subsidy-published author has paid the costs for someone else to publish his/her books.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Should We Shun Subsidy-Published Authors?

Last week I wrote about how the meaning of self-publisher has drifted to include authors whose books are published by subsidy publishers. Those are companies like Trafford, iUniverse / AuthorHouse, Outskirts Press, Bookstand Publishing, Infinity Publishing, and many, many others that charge authors a fee to publish their books. Most offer authors a choice of packages that include layout, cover design, editing, marketing, distribution, etc. The company provides the ISBN number, hence the company is the publisher. The author retains copyright to the work.I participate in several online discussion groups made up of authors, many of who—like me—have started their own businesses to publish their books. I've noticed that most of them are very critical of books published by subsidy publishers.

Specifically, they say:

  • Many of the books are badly written.

  • Editing is poor or nonexistent.

  • Layout is badly done.

  • Covers are amateurish.

  • No reputable reviewer will review them.

  • Bookstores won't carry them.

  • Librarians view them negatively.

Furthermore, they argue that subsidy publishing companies rip off authors by making false promises about how well their books will be promoted and how many copies they are likely to sell. The common belief is that these authors are so gullible and ill-informed that they unwittingly sign on with predatory companies and later regret their choices. True self-publishers—or independent publishers as some of us now call ourselves—don't want to be lumped into the same category as subsidy-published authors.

How true are these criticisms? And should we take care to distinguish between authors this way? As I've said before, I think setting up a hierarchy among ourselves is divisive. As authors whose publishers don't fit the traditional model, I think it is to our disadvantage to separate ourselves out into better and worse categories based on the publishing model we've chosen.

And I think it is insulting to authors who have chosen to use a subsidy publisher to assume they are all naïve, that their books are badly written, and/or that they regret their choice. Maybe some were deceived and have regrets, but others are happy with their choice. For example, Laurie Pooler Pelayo wrote the following comment on last week's post:
I think 'subsidy' publishing is simply an alternate way for people who wish to self-publish (in the traditional sense) but cannot afford to retain 500 copies in their basement, or to have to apply for a business license as a 'business' to get their book out. I could not afford to self-publish in the traditional sense, I did consider it at one point. I just didn’t have the overhead. So what I did was select I guess what is called a 'subsidy' publisher to print my book.… So if 'subsidy,' the dirty word on the street, is what my chosen path is, so be it. I am not offended. My POD/subsidy company (whatever one wants to call it) uses the term 'author originated work.' I think I like that term better." 

Personally, I think whatever way people want to publish is fine and the choice belongs to the author. It's interesting (and unfortunate) that with all the bias against authors who don't go with big traditional publishers, we denigrate the work of entire groups of these authors based on the business model of their publisher. That is prejudice and it's beneath us.

I'm not saying that all books are equal or that we shouldn't care about quality. I'm saying judge the book by the book, not by its publishing model. Let's give subsidy-published authors the equal opportunity we all want to have their work considered on a level playing field. Then let the marketplace decide.

What's your experience with subsidy publishing?: I've set up a short survey to find out how authors who have used subsidy publishers feel about their experience. How has it worked out for you? Are you satisfied? Dissatisfied? Would you do it again? Please click here to complete the survey to help tell the truth about subsidy publishing. I'll publish the results in a later blog. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who Are You Calling A Self-Publisher?

"Words don't mean. People mean." That was our mantra when I was a doctoral student in interpersonal communication many years ago. The point is that words themselves don't mean anything. Rather, people create meanings by the way they use words. If you want to communicate clearly with someone, it is important to have agreement about the meaning of the terms you are using in your conversation.

Unfortunately, there is little agreement among authors and publishers as to what they mean by the terms self-publishing and POD (print-on-demand). The term self-publisher has strayed far from its original meaning, as pointed out in an excellent article by Norma Lehmeier Hartie in the February 2008 issue of PMA's newsletter, Independent. Hartie, the grand prize winner in this year's Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards, formed her own publishing company to publish her book, but she now rejects the term self-publisher and refers to herself as an independent publisher because of the confusion surrounding the term self-publisher. (You can read her article on her blog, Norma's Journal).

Back in 1984 when I became a self-publisher, the meaning of that term was much clearer. Self-publishers owned their own businesses, got their own ISBN numbers, hired editors, typesetters and graphic designers to get their books ready for printing (or, if qualified, did those tasks themselves). They contracted with offset printers to print the books, set the cover prices, managed the books' marketing, filled orders. They did everything. Self-publishers had all the responsibility and all the control of their books.

And in fact, true self-publishers still do all this and more. But the term self-publisher has expanded to include a much different group—subsidy publishers. With the advent of digital printing—also called print-on-demand or POD printing—anyone can get books out without having to print and store a thousand or more copies. So digital printing and the internet made it easy for subsidy publishers to spring up offering to publish almost any author's manuscript for a fee. Subsidy publishers don't invest in printing, storing and distributing large quantities of books the way traditional publishers do. Most of them use their own ISBN numbers, set the books' selling prices, which are higher than similar traditionally-published books, and sell authors marketing packages, editing services, cover design services, etc.

Somehow authors whose books are published by subsidy publishers are now referred to as self-published, even though they don't have the control or responsibility that true self-publishers have. At other times, they are called POD-published, even though POD is a method of printing, not a type of publishing.

Many traditional authors and publishers have very negative attitudes about subsidy publishing, partly because they believe that the companies mislead and take advantage of authors. Whether or not authors whose books are published by subsidy publishers share those negative attitudes—an whether the negative attitudes are deserved—is another matter. I'm not willing to give an opinion until I find out more about what these authors think.

But I share Ms. Hartie's unhappiness that the confusion of the meanings of the terms has led the negative attitudes about subsidy publishing to be attached to true self-publishers. I also wish everyone would understand that POD is simply a printing method—and one that has major advantages. Printing books on an as-needed basis prevents waste (because you don't end up with boxes of unsold books), allows for immediate corrections and changes (because you don't have thousands of books already printed that you can't change), and saves money on storage.

Can we untangle the meanings of these terms? Or should those of us who are truly self-publishers follow Ms. Hartie's lead and call ourselves independent publishers?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Is Paying For A Book Review Sinful?

Some say that authors who pay for reviews not only lack integrity, they are wasting their money because a paid review is worse than no review. Purists even go so far as to say that if you get a review from a site that accepts payment for an expedited review, your review is tainted even if you haven't paid anything for it. They add that for authors whose books are self-published, getting a paid review is especially tacky. It's bad enough that we're paying to have our books published, now we're compounding the offense by paying for a review.

The belief that underlies this thinking is that paid reviews—or even reviews from sites that accept payment—are corrupted by having money involved. After all, why would anyone pay for a negative review? But what they overlook is that the payment is made before the review is written. If the review is negative, the author doesn't have to use it, but the fee will not be returned.

I've given this issue a lot of thought lately (see my January 24 post below) and I've decided not to be a purist about reviews. If you've read this blog much, you won't be surprised that I'm once again going the pragmatic route. And for my usual reason. Because that's what works. I'd rather get my book reviewed than not get it reviewed.

Furthermore, it's been my experience that online review sites that charge fees for some or all of the reviews they write can and often do provide useful and honest reviews. Let's look at an example. One of the online review sites that reviewed my novel is BookPleasures.com. This review site is included in Midwest Book Review's list of the best of online review organizations and publications. Norm Goldman, the editor and publisher of BookPleasures.com accepts email queries from authors who want their books reviewed. If he selects a book for review, he makes it available to his 40+ international reviewers, most of whom are writers and/or editors.

But, the BookPleasures website says that demand for reviews is so high that it can now take three to four months to get a review. So they offer a priority, fast track quick review service for authors who are in a hurry to have their books reviewed. Authors who pay $119 are guaranteed to get a review within fifteen business days of the date their book is received. And their review will also be posted on a bunch of online magazines, Amazon, and some social networking sites. The review will also be cross-linked to an e-interview with the author.

The site specifically states that they will provide an honest review and that there is no guarantee that the review will be positive. How true is this statement? I randomly read some reviews from the general fiction category on the BookPleasures site. While I can't tell which ones were paid reviews, I definitely did not find the reviews to be universally positive. While reviewers found much to like about the books and talked about aspects of plot and character they found satisfying, they also made critical comments. Here are some:

  • The entire novel doesn’t completely hang together

  • An overwriting of chapters considerably slowing down the pace of the story

  • What is not up to scratch about this novel is its lack of good editing and proofreading. There are glaring grammatical and spelling errors that at times required me to re-read entire paragraphs and sentences to comprehend what the author was trying to say

  • Readers may feel short changed with some of the minor characters

  • Believability is diminished by some less compelling scenes

  • I was a little disappointed in the overall story

  • As a reader I felt just as confused and perplexed as the character

  • The beginning of the story is a bit slow

My review from BookPleasures was done over a year ago at no charge and only took a month. But I might consider their fast track service for my next book, especially since it includes posting the review in online magazines and other sites. I think we need to continue to change with the times. If I offend the purists, so be it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Times They Are A Changin'

CHANGE. It's the new buzzword in the 2008 presidential campaigns. All the candidates running in the primaries are telling voters that if they are elected, things will be different—meaning better.

But while the idea of change tends to be popular, actual changes are often resisted, mocked, and opposed by people who say the new ways are unwise, unfair, and irresponsible. The history of mankind is rife with examples of ideas, inventions and social policies that were originally considered foolhardy but are now mainstream. The automobile, airplane, telephone, and women's right to vote are a few examples.

I predict that trajectory for publishing. Soon digital printing, e-books and publishing formats we haven't heard of yet will be the order of the day. It's a long uphill road, but a lot has happened in the last few years and movement is accelerating.

For example, back in 2003 The Rocky Mountain Writer, the newsletter of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers reported on a roundtable discussion where local editors and agents commented on publishing trends. They asked the panelists, "Is there a future for e-publishing and/or POD?" The unanimous answer was an emphatic "No!" In fact, one panelist suggested that, if an author’s contract with a publisher mentions POD, “run like your hair’s on fire!”

Fast forward to January 2008 and an Associated Press article entitled "Got a Manuscript? Publishing Now a Snap." How things have changed! The article, which has been widely reprinted, points out that because of new technologies today's writers—unlike those in past generations—all have the opportunity to have their work published, read, and listed for sale on online bookstores right along with traditionally published books.

Today more than three-quarters of the approximately 200,000 books published in this country each year are self-published or published by a small press. And eBooks are taking off. Amazon already has over 99,000 books available for sale to readers who use their Kindle, which only came out in December.

In the music industry artists are choosing to bypass major labels and offer albums directly to the public and/or make their work available for digital download. Record companies are no longer required. Not only are new artists putting their works out through self-produced digital recordings, megastars are joining in this trend. Last fall Radiohead offered its new album, In Rainbows, for direct download from its website for whatever price fans decided the album was worth.

Amateur filmmakers can upload their creations to YouTube, which currently has over 72 million videos available for viewing. Now frequent uploaders who have a loyal following can even apply to become YouTube partners who earn money by having ads spliced into their videos.

The old guard predictors were wrong about future trends in publishing and they continue to wear those blinders. But the days of a few major publishers, record labels or movie studios controlling what gets out to the public are over. We have entered a new populist era where consumers can access a wide variety of artistic works and decide for themselves what is worth their time and money.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Who Will Review Our Self-Published Fiction?

If you write a novel, you have to get it reviewed. A nonfiction book can succeed without reviews if it fills a niche and is written by someone with special expertise. But a novel—even if it's a great story, well-written, edited and professionally designed—won't get far without reviews. Few people will know about it—or believe it's any good—if you don't get it reviewed. So do you just send your book off to the New York Times (like one of my friends suggested I do) and wait for the review to show up? Or do you face reality and look for other possibilities?

More and more newspapers are eliminating their book review sections, and those that remain get hundreds of review requests every week, so unless you're a celebrity, your chances of getting a newspaper review aren't great. And then there are the big pre-publication reviewers—Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and ForeWard Magazine—who require a specially prepared review copy four months in advance of the book's publication date. So if your book is already published, they are out.

And what if your book is self-published? That limits your review opportunities even more. Many newspapers and magazines have a policy of not reviewing self-published books.

In recent years, online book review sites have jumped in to fill the demand. After my novel, Too Near The Edge, was published in October 2006, I sent email queries to 15 online review sites requesting that they review my book. Of those, ten replied with requests for me to send a review copy, which I did. I got five reviews, the first within a few weeks from when I sent the review copy. I did not pay anything for any of these reviews and none of them took more than a month to complete. I did pay one site $22 to post the review their reviewer had written on Amazon and several other online sites. As far as I can see, the reviewers from the sites I used are volunteers who love books and care about writing useful reviews.

But the online review scene is changing all the time. New review sites continue to crop up and those that have been out there a while continue to change their requirements. I just did a search on bookconnector.com—a site where you put in the type of book you've written and it spits out a list of possible reviewers for you. I put in "Fiction," "Mystery / Thriller / Suspense," "Published hardcover or softcover book," and the site came up with 129 review sites for me. And at least one of the sites that reviewed my book quickly and for free a year ago is now saying that they are limiting the number of free reviews they do each week and that they highly recommend that authors pay for an express review to get the review in a timely way.

I'm seeing discussion on author groups about the problems of paid reviews, how this cheapens the process and how these reviews are worthless. Some review sites are careful to say that the author is not paying for the review, but for getting it done quickly or posting it at various online locations. But others, including some that are subsidiaries of the most prestigious reviewers, are openly offering reviews to authors for a fee. For example, Clarion, a fee for review service now offered through ForeWord Magazine, offers authors "a professional review of your title, with the same quality and word length offered in the magazine and very often by the same reviewers" for $305.

And Kirkus Discoveries is "a paid review service that allows authors and publishers of overlooked titles to receive authoritative, careful assessment of their books," for $550 (reviews completed in 3-4 weeks) or $400 (reviews completed in 6-8 weeks).The author has the right to use these reviews as cover blurbs, in publicity materials, etc., and, if the author agrees, the reviewer will post the review in other locations. Assuming you pay the fee and get a good review is the review worth the price? Will it help your book get credibility or will it make you look desperate? Are we better off with no reviews if we can't get them from mainstream sources?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sisters, Stand With Me

I just renewed my membership in Sisters In Crime—a great organization that offers networking, advice and support to mystery authors worldwide. Founded in 1986 by mystery writer Sara Paretsky, Sisters In Crime (SinC) has as its mission: "To combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, educate publishers and the general public as to inequities in the treatment of female authors, raise the level of awareness of their contributions to the field, and promote the professional advancement of women who write mysteries."

As I am fairly new to mystery writing, I've only been a SinC member for a few years, but I've benefited greatly from my local chapter's programs, critique groups, and support. And I admire and enjoy the mystery writers and fans I've met at local meetings and events.

SinC welcomes all mystery writers and readers to join and does not classify its members into superior and inferior categories the way Mystery Writers of America (MWA) does. (MWA has several classes of membership and restricts active membership to authors of mysteries that have been published by publishers on its approved list.) And the annual Sisters In Crime Books In Print lists members' books that are published by iUniverse, Lulu, Outskirts, PublishAmerica, AuthorHouse, Booksurge, Xlibris, etc., as well as those published by small independent and/or author-owned presses, right along with those published by well-known commercial publishers. SinC gives an equal listing to each author with no partiality shown to those published by mainstream publishers.

I applaud and appreciate SinC for accepting and treating all authors as equal. But I am seriously bothered by the fact that SinC is a sponsor of conferences that treat authors unequally based on how their books are published. For example, SinC will host a breakfast at the Left Coast Crime conference, and a chapter flash training session and a breakfast at Malice Domestic, where they will also be contributing souvenir tote bags. At Mayhem in the Midlands, SinC is sponsoring a buffet and has a link to its website from the conference site. SinC is intimately involved with Bouchercon, where it was founded in 1986, and where its current president was installed at a breakfast at the 2007 Bouchercon held in Anchorage, Alaska.Sadly, all of these conferences have restrictions that exclude from author status any authors whose books are self-published, printed by means of digital technology, or published by small presses that do not meet a list of criteria like those set up by the Mystery Writers of America. And many SinC members fall into the excluded groups of authors. How many? About 45% of them according to mystery-writer colleague who is a member of both SinC and MWA. She did a comparison of SinC published authors (as listed in 2007 SinC Books in Print) with the MWA approved publisher list (as of 11/22/07) and found that of the 496 published SinC members listed, only 275 have publishers who are on the approved list.

As an organization that was founded to combat discrimination against one group of mystery authors (females), I would expect SinC to stand up against discrimination against other groups of mystery authors. Instead my sisters seem to be giving tacit approval to discrimination against authors of mysteries that are published by companies that don't meet certain guidelines.

I expect more from my sisters. I want them to stand up with me and speak out for equal opportunity for authors whose books are self-published or published by small, independent publishers. When sisters stand together and speak the truth, we can prevail. I challenge the SinC leadership to take another look and become leaders for equity for all authors in the mystery genre.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Progress! Small Steps Away From the MWA List

I've been continuing to check websites of mystery writers' conferences to see how many are determining authors status for attendees by whether or not their publisher is on the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) list of approved publishers. And, to my surprise and delight, I've noticed some movement away from the MWA list!

Left Coast Crime (Denver, March 2008) continues to say they use the MWA approved publisher list, BUT they have added this statement: "Authors from publishers not on the approved list but who submit a signed affidavit stating that they print, in an initial edition, a minimum of 500 copies, pay standard royalties and/or advances without any hidden fees, do not require or accept any monetary contribution from their authors, including editing and promotional fees, and who make their books available at all times at standard trade discounts on a returnable basis will be accepted on a provisional basis.

"Mayhem in the Midlands (Omaha, May 2008) has changed their statement to read:"We will offer author assignments only to traditionally published authors of crime fiction or those who have been nominated for established mystery awards. We define traditional publisher authors as those who: (1) Did not pay any of the costs associated with the publication of their books; and (2) Are published by a company that: publishes at least three authors other than the publisher, members of the publisher's family, or staff of the publishing company; does not guarantee publication of all submissions; and provides editorial support to its authors.

"Malice Domestic (Arlington, VA, April 2008) is using the same statement as Mayhem in the Midlands. The site for Bouchercon 2008 (Baltimore, Oct. 2008) is incomplete and does not currently include any author criteria, but we know they planned to set up some criteria (see my Nov 29 post).

But wait—aren't these criteria still too restrictive? Of course they are. I'm not jumping up and down at these rules that continue to exclude authors whose books are printed with digital technology and those who are published by companies owned by themselves or a family member. And I'm especially unhappy that Left Coast, Malice and Bouchercon—all major mystery conferences—are limiting participation.

But I am clapping quietly that the MWA blacklist seems to be losing ground. Apparently the level of complaints has created some movement away from using a list of approved publishers, which I see as a very positive sign. If there's an accepted list it can easily be adopted by libraries, booksellers, reviewers and so on. All they have to do is check it, and if your publisher isn't on it, you're excluded. Lists of rules, even restrictive ones, are less accessible and more time-consuming to use. And we can work on chipping away at specific rules by pointing out how absurd some of them are.

I'm also happy that in my search process I discovered a whole bunch of mystery writing conferences that DO NOT list any author restrictions. I may have missed some, but here's my list of conferences that are open to all authors who write in the mystery genre, regardless of who their publisher is.

  • SleuthFest (Feb. 2008, Deerfield Beach, FL)

  • Love Is Murder (Feb 2008, Chicago)

  • Murder in the Magic City (Feb 2008, Birmingham, AL)

  • New England Crime Bake (March 2008, Dedham, MA)

  • NoirCon (April 2008, Philadelphia)

  • Romantic Times Booklovers Convention (April 2008, Pittsburgh, PA)

  • Public Safety Writer's Assoc (April, 2008, Las Vegas)

  • Deadly Ink (June 2008, Parsippany, NJ)

  • Murder In the Grove (June 2008, Boise, ID)

  • Mystery Florida (June 2008, Sarasota, FL)

  • International Mystery Writers Festival (June 2008, Owensboro, KY)

  • Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference (June 2008, San Francisco)

  • Thriller Fest (July 2008, NYC)

  • The Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave (Oct 2008, Manhattan, KS)

I'm sure there are many conferences outside the mystery genre that also welcome all authors. If, as an author, you belong to organizations or attend conferences that do not limit author participation, spread the word. Let's support those groups.