The ads were omnipresent. I remember seeing them in theNew York Times, the Boston Globe, and even in my hometown paper in southern New Hampshire: Publish Your Book! was the boldface come-on. The company offering this service was Vantage Press (B. 1949; D. 2012). Notice that the first three letters of Vantage are V-a-n.
Self-publishing (a.k.a. vanity publishing) is a service offered to authors who can’t find a traditional publisher. It’s rare, but sometimes self-published authors hit the big time. A few notable examples:
• The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer
• Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
• The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
But those and a few others are the exceptions to the self-publishing rule.
Self-publishing is often called “vanity publishing,” because many authors who go the self-route are merely stroking their egos. Others may wish to skirt the traditional approach because they have something they truly believe in but can’t find a publisher. And getting a deal with a traditional publisher—especially for a first-time author—is very difficult. Almost always requires an agent who knows how to work the system.
Simplified Self-Scenario Synopsis
In the early Vantage days, it worked like this: You signed a contract to supply a typescript to Vantage. You paid a fee, which included X number of books. If you had the money, you’d be published. This was way before POD (publishing on demand), so you paid in advance for a press run of, say, 500 books. In traditional publishing, the publisher takes the financial risk, possibly paying you an advance against royalties, designing and editing the book, and working hard to sell it.
Let’s say you get a $5,000 advance for your book in a traditional deal. Design, editing, and promotion will costs thousands more, so the publisher is out a fair amount of money. In hopes of getting it back and making a profit, the publisher will pay you a 15 percent royalty on the wholesale price (what the publisher gets from the book-seller—about half the sale price); the publisher gets the remaining 85 percent. The cover price is $20, so you get about $1.50/book. But you have to recoup the advance before you see any more money. If you sell more than about 3,300 copies, only then do you start receiving your $1.50 per book. If you sell only 1,500 copies, however, you get to keep the advance.
In vanity publishing, you front the money to the publisher—enough to cover his costs and make a profit—giving him less motivation to sell the book. In the old days, if the book flopped, you were stuck with the unsold copies or the publisher remaindered them. In POD, at least you don’t have that headache, as your book is printed only as it’s ordered. Until then, it exists as a digital file on a server.
The main difference in the old and new vanity models is that books aren’t printed till they’re ordered with POD. But the business model is pretty much the same. Most vanity publishers have a basic price for basic service. For that, you get a design…color on the cover, but not inside, unless you want to pay a lot more. Unlike the approach in the Vantage days, however, the publisher gets the book listed on Amazon. Old-style and POD outfits obtain your ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for you.
In the old and POD days, costs are/were tiered. Need your book edited? The publisher will farm it out to an editor. More cost. Want it promoted? Ka-ching. Today, want a website for the book? Some publishers will create and manage a site for you. My, how those costs are ratcheting up. You could spend thousands for a book that only your uncle Bob will buy.
Until recently I went the traditional route with my books, through an agent. But then I wrote a memoir that I knew no publisher would pick up. I thought I had an intriguing angle, but it was a vanity project. I started with createspace (see below), but my association with it was a disaster. So I ended up contracting with Alive Books, in Alamo. The basic price was higher than industry average, but Alive gives its authors a free full-page ad in Alive magazine and then features it for several issues thereafter. But Alive takes a healthy cut of a product for which you’ve already paid—as do most other POD outfits.
But if you wanted to publish inexpensively, you could go with createspace, founded in 2002, acquired by Amazon in 2005. You’d supply a digital manuscript and pick cover and interior templates, and createspace would pour in your text and files. All for a few hundred bucks—with the usual ancillary-services markup. Some authors have had good luck with createspace; others, such as I, have had horrible luck.
Createpace has evolved into Kindle Direct Publishing. It’s a free service, and you’re on your own. It’s still a template-based endeavor, but you do most of the work. Select a book size, pour your text and images into a Word template, and select a cover template to fill. KDP supplies the ISBN and gets the book onto Amazon. It’s up to you to steer potential buyers to the website. The price is right, though. KDP takes 40 percent of the list price, leaving you with 60 percent. And you’re getting 60 percent of a product for which you paid nothing other than your time to write and format.
Say your list price is $20; you get $12/book. I know a fiction writer who has made about $20K so far on a fiction series done through KDP. If he had gone through what I now call “traditional POD,” he would have forked over as much as $2,500 per book for the privilege of having the series produced. And his cut of each sale might have been smaller.
If you have a book for which you can’t find a publisher and you don’t mind spending money to avoid doing much work, traditional POD may be the way to go.
But if you have a stronger stomach and are willing to do the work, your investment of time and effort will reap you a greater reward with the KDP approach to vanity/self-publishing. If you just want your ego stroked—or have something no traditional publisher will touch—this is a cheaper way to get it done.