Monday, July 30, 2012

Self Publishing, Vanity Press or Do-It-Yourself-ers

Chapter 4
Self Publishing, Vanity Press or Do-It-Yourself-ers
Vanity is my favorite sin.” ~ Al Pacino

Self publishing, publish on demand, traditional, and now the New Publishing. Publishers everywhere and so many choices what’s a writer to do? Before you get all quivering and quaking with fear and a need to pop a Xanax to calm your nerves, keep reading. We want to help alleviate a quick trip to the pharmacy to consume anti-depressants to manage your publishing anxiety. First, like the warning label on any good prescription bottle or Diet Coke can, we want to not just warn you, but beg you to educate yourself before you sign on the line on any contracts you may have placed in front of you. And this may be hard to control yourself too. Any time a so-called publisher or someone with the title of publisher calls and says they want to publish your manuscript refrain from the happy dance just yet.
Our sad cautionary tale comes from a 95-year-old World War II veteran we’ll call Stew. Poor Stew searched for the perfect publisher of his war stories and found one. So grateful and pleased to have his legacy in print, he signed – and he signed away all of his rights to future work to that same publisher. The unscrupulous publisher didn’t deliver on a single promise – yet they still have “first right of refusal” on any piece of literature the poor old guy produces. He sadly shows up at 3L and wants us to publish his new book, which was very good. Unfortunately, when he reported his contractual obligation with the first publisher we were forced to turn him away. This sad story is common – and please don’t let it be you who comes begging for assistance after being swindled out of your literary “rights.”
Now that said, you may be tempted more than ever to toss in the towel and just self publish. Well, we have some information to share about self publishing. Before we launch into it, we’re going to stray to a Smart Girl’s technique, which is to give you The Good, The Bad and The Brutally Ugly, because self publishing deserves its own special treatment in this respect.
The Good
Smart Girls
I flunked English, but that doesn’t mean anything, does it?
The self publisher knows without question that she is a writer not an editor or graphic designer. She writes her book and then hires an editor to clean it up and eliminate typos, style and grammar errors, and anything questionable content-wise. She then researches and finds a talented graphic artist and does not sit down and attempt to draw stick figures. The Good relies on her graphic artist to do her job and follow a bona fide template for the book’s interior design. The Good doesn’t try and purchase a copy of InDesign and attempt the impossible – learn a program that takes years of skill to use. The Good does take her professionally edited and designed manuscript to a reputable printer and has a perfect-bound book created. The Good doesn’t attempt to do her own PR and does hire a proper publicist who will do everything possible to avoid letting anyone know the books was self published. The Good has a professionally designed website created for her and leverages her writing talent to blog and support her book. She also has the PR expert write the media kit and fully understands it’s not a good idea to attempt to do this without help. The Good also understands that because she self published her chances of getting national distribution are next to nil – but that’s OK. She is really only using her book to get speaking gigs and help grow her primary business, which involves seminars and workshops – all based, of course, on her self-published book that now people “oooh” and “aaahhh” over, because she did such a good job.
The Bad
The bad don’t believe they need an editor – heck I’ll just do it myself. The Bad don’t have any training in editing, and don’t know anything about style … “Style? What style?” They just figure they can save money, because, “Hell, I know how to use a period.” The Bad also go out and purchase a copy of InDesign and start trying to use it. After much cursing and frustration, they toss it out and figure, “Well, then what’s a word processor for anyway? I’ll just make me a Microsoft template.” The Bad then shrink the margins in an attempt to create the correct format. The Bad then simply put words in place of a cover, call around to find a few printers, find one, and soon realize they don’t get it when the printer asks, “What size template do you want?” They don’t know how to resize it anyway and take it down to the printer to have the printer’s $10 an hour designer slap it into a pre-made template for printing. The Bad then get their book off press – no design, spelling and grammar errors and all. They look around, call Grandma and cry, “Hey there Granny, $12 bucks get you my book.” Granny buys it, forces her friends to buy it, and coerces the rest of the family to buy lest she cut them out of her will. The writer makes $50 for sales to reluctant family members and ends up with 2,000 copies all sitting, gathering dust in the shed.
The Brutally Ugly
The Brutally Ugly didn’t pass high school English. In fact, the Brutally Ugly really don’t like to write – but want to be famous for something … anything. The Brutally Ugly write their memoir about their first trip to the North Carolina pig farm – and how they fell in love with a pink sow named Wanda, but Wanda got slaughtered. They cried for weeks and then decided to write a book on cruelty to animals and “screw bacon” pass me the ham. They attempt to illustrate their book with hand-drawn pictures of Wanda and use red crayon to illustrate the slaughter. They take the drawings and the printout to Kinko’s and make an original copy that they then have Joe Bob behind the counter create 100 copies of their masterpiece, “Don’t Kill Wanda!” for $30 each copy. They get “Don’t Kill Wanda,” and think, “What a beautiful book. Now I’m famous.” They try to sell copies to PETA, but PETA turns them down and muses over the hand-drawn pictures, laughing the whole time. They try to sell it to their family members and eventually their mother purchases a copy just so she can tell everyone her daughter is a published author … “See! I’m so proud.” And even though they should throw away this piece of junk, they drag it out every Christmas just to show their grand children that, “Look your Aunt wrote a book.” The smaller children cry when they see the slaughter drawings and the older children think their aunt is really weird.  
You’re so Vain You Probably Think this Book is about You
So the reality of self publishing can get really ugly, which is why we started saying, “Lift a rock find a writer.” We joke about that all the time. Some may find it offensive; but you will not find it offensive when you find yourself putting $29.99 on the counter to purchase what turns into an agonizing reading adventure into a book filled with typos, grammar errors, and little to no coherent intellectual reasoning or sound story structure. “How can this be?” you wonder as you flip to the last page to read the bio. You soon realize the book was published by a little-known press called Bear Skin Leather Co. Where are they located? In a little town called Patterson, Calif. You grow suspicious. I didn’t know there was a publisher in Patterson? You scratch your head and then do a Google search. Nope, no website either. Here is the real deal: You just got cheated out of $29.99 by Bob who printed the book under a self-made publishing house that is no more than his basement. Welcome to vanity press. Where all humans on the planet with no training can write their life stories even if they were raised on a potato farm in Idaho and have absolutely nothing meaningful to say except: “Well them there potatoes … they taste good.”

Vanity press became a more popular publishing method after the computer and digital printing brought the costs down to a level that the average person could afford. The advent of new publishing technology brought on a tidal wave of some good, but mostly bad books to flood the market. Many want-to-be authors got it into their minds that they could surly become millionaires by publishing on their own – no experience but a lot of moxie and enthusiasm. Many of these authors also approached overseas publishers that will produce even cheaper books – all for a price. Yes, they produce books all right – did we mention that “piece-of-crap” problem? Yes, I think we did. So yes in today’s world anyone can publish a book – but not necessarily a good book.

Looks Like a Pig, Quacks Like a Duck
Smart Girls
Avoid the stigma of self publishing. We want your money not your book.
Now we’re giving vanity press a bad rap. Reality is that vanity press – while it opens the market to everyone who has a book idea – can work for some (depends on what you’re going to do with the book) and not for others. You can purchase editorial and graphic services and create your own custom publication – and that is how it will be viewed by the media. It is very difficult to overcome set ideas about vanity press with the media too.

Why do you suppose that is when not all self published books are bad? Well, who works predominantly for the print media in particular? Writers … ding, ding, ding. You got it. And most writers often can spot your weak writing from a mere glance. The other thing you should know. Writers can be contentious and jealous types. If they can’t overcome the hurdles presented by a traditional publisher your attempt at writing what in their minds looks like amateur hour ultimately pushes buttons. All one has to do is hang out in a few writer’s groups and watch the jealousy and tantrums start. The book reviewers will see a homemade tome – and without flipping open a page throw it in their “special” file.

Why do so many folks have set ideas about vanity press? Back to the real professionals who know their stuff. Let’s say you’ve sent your custom publication to an editor. One thing you need to know. Editors read piles and piles of submissions and press releases. They can spot the good from the bad. They live with deadlines. If you have not gone that extra mile to attempt to put your perhaps well-written book into a traditional, perfect-bound format it most likely will come in a spiral binding … or worse stapled together. What message does that send? Oh, I know. Cheap, amateur and lame … seriously I know you may not want to hear this information; but it is the editor’s super secret thoughts. How do we know? Michelle (2L) was a professional editor for 10 years. She read and saw it all. And as much as it frustrates all you vanity press fans to hear this information: We all naturally make assumptions – especially when pressed for time. The natural assumption when one sees a spiral-bound book is it’s not good. So strike one.

Smart Girls
The Dude: These are, uh...
Brandt: Oh, those are Mr Lebowski's children, so to speak.
The Dude: Different mothers, huh?
Brandt: No.
The Dude: Racially he's pretty cool?
Brandt: [laughs] They're not literally his children. They're the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers - inner city children of promise but without the necessary means for a - necessary means for a higher education. So Mr Lebowski is committed to sending all of them to college. ~ The Big Lebowski
The Big Book of Lebowski
Now to be fair, vanity press can work quite well if you intend to use your book as a product to do back-of-the-room sales. Back-of-the-room sales may also help alleviate the spiral-binding problem. Now you can actually use the spiral-binding “perception” to leverage and increase sales. How’s that you wonder? Buyers now know this book is a custom job. What do all custom jobs cost? More money than mass-produced books, and oh so that $39.99 price tag on this custom job written by hopefully the girl who just gave an amazing talk on her subject of expertise costs more. OK, as a consumer I can accept the extra price. Now you have an actual reason to do a limited print run and charge more on a custom project. Just realize that wasting money and sending it to the local book reviewer will not fool them.

Smart Self Publishers Win
The real lesson is to be strategic in why you intend to self publish. You can make the self-publishing model work in your favor if you have a strategy behind it. If you’re going to use a self-published book as a giveaway at seminars and workshops or as a handout, that is good. People will perceive the value of this kind of publication and appreciate the spirit in which it is given and used. A typo in a self-published book used in this nature gets forgiven. The grammar police put away their rifles and guns. And you can sell it for top dollar – as we said people know it cost more to produce and respect the extra cost.

On the flipside self publishing a book and trying to make it masquerade as a book published by a traditional publishing house – and it is chockfull of errors and generally looks cheap and tacky – continues to create a fog of doubt. Yes, self-published books exist that are well-done, but these books are largely in the minority. We can stand 10 feet back from a self-published book and know it came off a self-publisher’s press, which isn’t necessarily a bad press; but an air of “something’s not right” looms over these self-published books and gives it away. To the less-seasoned eye it might seem to blend right in with the others; but the ones in the know like the media and book reviewers – well, they always know. And the self-published book, which may we add probably cost a lot if you had it perfect bound, loses credibility and will not be given proper respect, reviews or accolades – all needed to help it reach a mass audience.

The real question becomes, why are you self publishing in the first place? Are you fed up with traditional publishing and want your book faster than 18 months (see chapter on traditional publishing). Are you afraid your writing will be deemed unfit to publish so you are trying alternatives? Or are you using your book to support your business and have no expectation that it will be a best-seller? No matter the reason you’ve chosen to self publish, the rule for success requires you not eschew important professional help like an editor or graphic designer. Maybe your self-published book is a prize winner in the making. Good for you. Maybe you have friends at a major distributor who will help get it distributed as an independent book and you want to keep 100 percent of your royalties. OK, sounds reasonable to us; but chances are you have none of the advantages. Statistics show that most self-published books sell no more than 50-100 copies – hardly enough to make it a best seller and generate any significant profits. So before you spend upward of $5,000 to $10,000 to wind up with 2,000 copies of a book that may never see the light of a Borders book shelf, consider your options carefully and keep reading.

If you would like to work with 3L Publishing, which is a hybrid publisher not a vanity press, please call us at 916-300-8012 or send an email to

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