newsCO Book Publishing | On Vanity Presses, True Self-Publishing, and One Author’s Tenacity

February 16, 2018

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2016-07-28 16:03:21

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In the article “Meet Douglas Gardham, the hardest-working Canadian novelist you’ve never heard of,” Globe and Mail Books Editor Mark Medley features a Canadian author who has travelled every weekend for the last three years and driven over 115,000 kilometres to “hawk” his books to strangers.

In a nutshell, Medley admits that Gardham has sold a solid number of books over the years, but questions whether or not it was worth the effort. The entire piece is oozing with thinly veiled pity for Gardham, who hopes to someday catch the eye of an agency or traditional publishing company.

I don’t feel sorry for Gardham. I think his work ethic is admirable and with his determination, it’s a matter of time before an agency finds him. It’s just a shame that iUniverse found him first. After years of agency rejections, Gardham decided to take matters into his own hands.

“Finally, after a decade of frustration, he turned to iUniverse, the Indiana-based publishing service that has released some eventual bestsellers,” Medley writes of the resolute author.

To call iUniverse (or any of its ilk) a “publishing service” would be to use a great euphemism, and Medley is surprisingly out of touch with the industry he writes about. He also admitted that when Gardham approached him several years ago, he had no intention of featuring him or any of his books in the newspaper, stating, “As a rule, I rarely write about self-published books–there are too many, they are largely terrible and most of them are not readily available in bookstores.”

There are a couple of major things wrong with Medley’s piece (aside from its supercilious tone). First, the dismissal of self-published books in a grand sweeping statement is irresponsible of a modern newspaper editor. It is fine not to consider most self-published books, but this shouldn’t be because they’re self-published, and if it is, at least have the good sense not to admit this to your audience.

Self-publishing is on the rise, and it’s here to stay, with even major publishers like Penguin-Random House once owning Author Solutions, the vanity press giant under which iUniverse and other so-called “self-publishing” companies operate. Many self-published books have gone on to become bestsellers, and many traditionally published books have faded into oblivion. If the author has an audience they know how to tap into, the book should sell relatively well regardless of where it’s published. This is all the more likely if the book is well-written, carefully edited, and presented professionally.

For example, as the author of a travel memoir and overall memoir junkie, I often look for books written by other authors in my niche. I recently picked up How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff, a book that’s highly ranked on Amazon and has received dozens of reviews. Thoroughly enjoying it, it was only when I was about halfway through that I became curious about the publisher.

There is a difference between publishing with a vanity press or so-called “self-publishing service” and true self-publishing. True self-publishing means being the owner of your own ISBN. Self-publishers register their ISBN under their own publishing imprint, or their own name. They hire independent editors and cover designers, and upload their manuscripts directly to bookseller websites, such as Amazon, Smashwords, and iTunes. Self-publishers maintain maximum creative control over their work, and receive much higher profits from sales.

Unlike true self-publishing, if the author uses a vanity press, the publisher will remain the owner of the book’s ISBN. The author will also have to pay hefty upfront fees for the book’s production, and to top it all off, authors will receive low royalty rates even though the publisher has not invested in the book whatsoever. This backwards business model is how vanity presses make their money. This is why vanity presses aren’t picky; so long as it’s not hate speech or pornography, anything goes.

Whereas traditional publishers pay authors for the rights to their book and consider the readers to be their customers, and self-published authors also consider the readers to be their customers, vanity press customers are authors, not readers. I have yet to meet an author that has turned a profit from publishing with a vanity press. There are very few exceptions.

There’s no doubt that iUniverse is very happy that they signed an author like Gardham. But what is he getting out of the deal?

By registering an imprint and truly self-publishing their work, self-published authors can compete with traditionally published authors for the attention of readers. The unethical vanity press “middle man” should have no place in this industry.

For instance, The New York Times recently ran an article about Meredith Wild, a self-published author who turned her imprint into a sought-after business. After being bombarded with offers from traditional publishers, she settled on a book deal with a healthy seven-figure advance in 2014, while she continues to write and grow her own imprint today.

Could this be the future for Gardham?

Gardham could still release new editions of his books under his own ISBNs, and collect greater royalties while he waits for that publishing deal. I wish him the best of luck in the future.

*Note: For more on writing and self-publishing, visit my blog.

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