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.


  1. Lynn, this is very interesting. In a way maybe this dialogue is good for everyone - Self-Published, Small Press and or Subsidy...Okay, so let me get this correct: according to the responses in the blog, if I had spent $500.00 of my own money and taken my book to a printer myself (whether edited professionally or not), created a publishing company name and bought an ISBN I would be okay because I truly self-published my book.Or if I spent 10-20 years submitting my work over and over again to a publisher/agent who likes the idea, but won't make any money off of it, does that mean my story should be shelved or stifled?And because I put that effort into someone else's hands and paid them the money I would have spent doing the same thing on my own (whether professionally edited or not), I am considered a poorly written author with a bad cover and no chance of ever becoming even remotely read. And because of that there are people out there who would deliberately not read my story because they have a prejudice against subsidy publishing?Wow. I knew it was bad, but I didn't realize it was this bad. There are levels of quality at every level. I'm not going to judge a book by where it was printed, but on it's content. Every book published now, irregardless of where it came from has a flaw, some more apparent than others, but does that stop us from reading them? We're there for the content, the characters, the plot and whatever else may draw us to the book.Shame on those who are so closed minded!

  2. That seems to be pretty much the way it is, Laurie. You've summed it up well. Personally, I'm going to keep promoting the idea that books should be judged on their merits.Lynn

  3. I was surprised that most responds to your posts about the survey were reasons not to do it. I shouldn't have been. My suggestion to collect sales figures was met with blank incomprehension. I would have though the potential for bad experiences and the earning ability would be the first two things anyone would want to know.

  4. I'm a little bemused as well about some of the negative criticism. I welcome any survey or analysis on subsidy publishing. I find any heated discussion on this topic seems to throw up as much about the attitude of traditionally published authors as it does about the subsidy published ones! I think authors who have been published through both channels will, perhaps, return a fairer and more balanced view of the subsidy publishing experience.As different authors will have had varying experiences with subsidy publishers, all will answer the survey questions in a highly subjective manner. I think every author is on their own journey, and often, that journey is pre-determined by their starting point they choose in an effort to be published. I've been researching POD subsidy publishers for a while and I've found that writers (because all authors are first writers) fall into three broad groups.Group 1 - Those who write for pleasure and have limited or little understanding of the publishing world. They set out on their writing journey and often, many of them will board the first bus that arrives. They board the Big Bright Subsidy Bus, because it seems to be the first bus to arrive, even though they have not quite worked out where it is they are going.Group 2 - Those who don't see themselves as writers and pursue entirely different journeys. Somewhere along the way, something wonderful/extraordinary/tragic/notable(read celebrity/politician etc) happens them, and they decide to write about their experience. With belief and support and champions close around them; most of these writers will ultimately board the Traditional Bus, that's if the driver thinks they really have a book in them and the masses will want to read it.Group 3 - The most interesting group. They know/believe with a real purpose that they are writers. Doggedly, they will not let go of this, even if their belief is misplaced. They may study literature, the arts, join a writing workshop, but along their journey they will hone their skills. Some may find themselves working behing the scenes in media (print/tv/promotional), all the time they are becoming more familiar and accustomed to the publishing world. Some of these writers because of their 'knowledge' will publish traditionally, and then, perhaps grow frustrated with the industry, eventually moving to subsidy or self-publishing. A small few will subsidy or self-publish directly, and then get the opportunity to move to traditional publishing.I do believe that many of the above groups will merge over the next 10 years with the advent of in-bookstore pod technology, the general traditional publishers embracing pod technology for 50% or more of the books they publish; the continued development of digital print and E-publishing; a continued reduction in pod digital costs per book, and ultimately a proper ethical publishing charter that all pod subsidy publishers will have to sign to operate as a business.Lynn, I welcome and wish you the very best with your survey.Mick Rooney