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 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 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.