• Chris OBrien

Vanity publishers set things back 30 years

The last post was all about the history of vanity publishers. Definitely recommend reading that post first but, if you're in a hurry, here were the highlights:

  • Until the early 2000's, authors could only publish their books through traditional publishers or vanity presses. There was no self-publishing. No Amazon. No Kindle.

  • Back in the 80's, early 90's, there wasn't even email. Microsoft Word was the new cool thing.

  • Vanity publishers charged a ton of money and made authors buy boxes of their own books as part of the deal. They didn't help proofread, edit, or otherwise revise the work. Didn't help the story get better. They didn't help authors get into bookstores. They were really just printers who made an absurd amount of money (sometimes north of $10,000) on authors who didn't have other options to choose from.

  • Unfortunately, these types of services are still around today

What's frustrating about this whole thing is vanity publishers created two distinct categories for books and authors to fall into.

Traditional - Publisher pays the author

Pay-to-Play - Author pays the publisher

So, with these two very black and white classifications, the prevailing idea was a "real" book meant Traditional. You weren't a "real" published author if you went pay-to-play.

Then Self-Publishing Hit

The self-publishing era started between 2007-2009. Authors had a new third option available. We could self-publish ebooks through Amazon or paperbacks through the Amazon affiliated site called CreateSpace. Both were really good, user-friendly services. It's still free to do (CreateSpace has rolled into Amazon KDP), however Amazon takes a percentage of the sales (30-70% depending on what the book is priced at). But considering Amazon is doing all of the formatting, printing, and shipping, it's really a reasonable deal.

And the self-publishing trend is booming, more popular than ever before. In 2017, there were 1,009,188 new self-published books. That's up from 786,000 the year before, an impressive 28 percent jump.

But just like vanity publishers got a bad rap, self-publishing has also suffered from some of the same "these are not real books" criticisms.

The main reason for the negative feedback is how many self-published books are out there with bad formatting, tons of typos, and grammar mistakes. A lot of times it appears the writer is publishing a rough draft and didn't go through the proper rounds of revision.

And, honestly, none of the numbers surprise me. If you were to pool the number of manuscripts sent off to literary agents and publishers 10 years ago, I bet that number is close to a million. Instead of those manuscripts dying as email attachments, the stories are getting out there via self-publishing. Which, ultimately, is a good thing. More people's stories are getting out there into the world.

But are books getting out there too soon?

What started to happen in the last five years is an individual or a group of people with writing and editing backgrounds would decide to create a publishing house. This is referred to as a Hybrid Publisher (more posts to come on this topic).

Previously, these writers/editors were only selling services like proofreading, line editing, copy editing or sometimes ghostwriting. These are extremely talented people who are essential in growing a rough draft into a final copy. All of the traditionally published authors, the Stephen Kings, the John Grishams of the world, their books also go through these intense editing rounds.

And this business model totally makes sense. Why just stop at the editing part? Why hand it off to a publisher when you just did all of the heavy lifting? Since sites like IngramSpark, Lulu, and Amazon KDP make it easy to put a book together, it allows editors to easily become publishers.

But editing is not cheap. And it shouldn't be cheap. Think about how long it takes to read a 500 page book. Now imagine focusing on each individual paragraph, each individual sentence. The hours add up.

When you see offers on freelance sites to do editing of a 200+ page book for less than $100, that's either not going to be enough attention to your work or you just found the luckiest pairing of extreme talent + extreme undervaluing of their service. Depending on the length of your book, and how many things are needed (proofreading, copy editing, line editing, reviewing your rewrites) it's not crazy for this stuff to cost $2,000, $3,000, $5,000.

A good cover design? That's another $400 - $1,000. Again, there's definitely cheaper stuff out there, but you're rolling the dice with quality. Especially if you're under $200.

To sum it up, Hybrid publishers are offering the experience of a traditional publisher (a focus on quality, attention to detail, deep concern to make your book the best it can possibly be) the only difference is they are asking for payment from you vs. paying you.

And this is why I say vanity publishers set things back 30 years. Because when an author sees a quote for $2,500 - $5,000+ from a hybrid publisher, there's still the potential stigma of, "What's the difference between this and vanity publishing? Isn't this pay-to-play?"

It's a totally different thing. Rapid fire reasons why:

  • The bulk of the cost is for the editing help. Improving the work. Making it professional.

  • You're not required to buy boxes of books.

  • The royalty percentages are favorable. It's not uncommon to see a hybrid publisher setup the split like: Amazon - 30%, Hybrid publisher - 10%, Author - 60%. Granted, there's still no guarantee your book will sell more than 10 copies but, if it does, this is your work, you should be the one making as much money as possible off the sales.

  • They are in your corner. Vanity publishers offered terrible customer service. The great hybrid publishers are partners with you, they're in your corner. If a big publisher like Random House swooped in and wants to buy the rights, or Netflix wants to make a movie out of the book, the hybrid publisher would be ecstatic. Throw a big party for you. We won!!

Another way to look at all of this - I've spent $1,000 at the iO here in Chicago. Two improv classes, one TV writing class. I've spent north of $1,000 at Second City being in their writing program/classes.

Have I made a "return on investment?" How much money have I earned as a result of these classes?

The answer: Pretty close to $0 in terms of being in a show or selling a script or anything like that.

But the value I received was all about the teaching. It's the same reason we pay for college writing courses (or, maybe better put in my case, "Mom and Dad paid for...") We're take those classes to get better. To improve at the craft.

That's why I really like the hybrid publishers. It's like working with a great teacher and the result is a physical book you can hold at the end as the trophy. That's a pretty awesome experience.

So yes, vanity publishers set things back 30 years. But we're passionate about sorting out the mess and providing you with lists of the great hybrid publishers to work with in our future posts.

And for anyone in this space, if you're an editor or writer running a hybrid publishing house, we'd love to hear from you. Happy to pass the keyboard over to you for a post. Just email library@longoverduestories.com

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