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.