The Anatomy of a 'Subsidy' Publisher
I'm a little late on this article - it's quite a bit longer than usual. Let me introduce you to Tate Publishing, a Christian book company that has recently gained some notoriety because of its owner, Ryan Tate. Long story short, Mr. Tate berated and then fired twenty-five employees because of an anonymous email. Here's the story from the Daily Mail. Tate Publishing calls itself a subsidy publisher. To those of us have an inkling of the publishing business, this means they're a vanity press; authors who go with Tate have to pay to play. Preditors and Editors consider them to be not recommended because they pitch themselves as a commercial publisher and don't make it clear that the author has to make an 'investment' of $4,000.
I've gotten curious about this company and their lofty ideals. They talk the talk, of course, and spin a lot of marketing speak about discovering new voices and all that. I want to know whether their investment makes sense for an author, leaving aside their tendency to not mention it up front. It may be possible to answer this question with some analysis of Amazon's sales ranking data.
The Data Source
I went to Sales Rank Express and did a search as follows:
Publisher: Tate Publishing
Sort by: Sales
Omit unavailable, omit tracking, omit reviews
SRE delivers the first 100 hits, so that is my sample size. (I used SRE to cut down on the time to gather the info; doing it by hand would take too long.) The sorting algorithm is based on what Amazon considers to be the 'Best Sellers' - as in, sorting by popularity - so these are the 100 most popular paperback books published by Tate Publishing. To double-check that SRE is at least somewhat reliable, I then went to Amazon.com and did the same search, and added in any books in the first 100 that hadn't shown up in the SRE list. I added 26.
I pulled the info for each book into a spreadsheet and recorded the sales rank, name, author, format, list price, publication date, and ISBN. As the original SRE list had some duplicates, I used the ISBNs to remove them, leaving me with 109 books. If the list price was not obvious, I took the price for a new un-discounted paperback instead.
The next thing to do was remove any titles that were published by the Tate Gallery. To do this, I put each ISBN into the Tate Publising website, and marked off any that didn't appear there. Then I went through every marked title in Amazon and Google Books, and checked the inside cover to see the publisher's information. If I could not establish that the title was a Tate Publishing book - I looked for their logo, website address, or other contact info - then it was excluded from the list. Nine were taken out, leaving me with a nice round figure of 100 books.
Here's what I have determined:
The sales ranks vary from 10,999 to 1,600,845. The cheapest book was $6.99, and the most expensive was $29.99. The publication date ranged from January 2005 to June 2012. Here's the sales rank vs. price:
This is interesting because it shows that the Tate bestsellers trend two ways - they predominantly have a bad sales rank, and they vaguely trend towards a lower price around the $10 mark. They have no significant sales, it seems.
I wanted to see how this would compare to a traditional publisher. For this, I needed a comparable sample size - meaning a publisher who had the same volume of titles up on Amazon, in the same genre. For this I picked Thomas Nelson, the largest independent Christian publisher still around (though they've been acquired by HarperCollins, apparently, so that may not last). They also have a self-publishing imprint called Westbow that uses editorial fee referrals, meaning they get a thumbs down from Writer Beware as well.
On Amazon, Tate Publishing have 8,259 new paperbacks available. Thomas Nelson have 7,302. I ran the same search query, and pulled up the same list of the top 100 bestselling titles. The sales ranks vary from 70 to 135,763. The cheapest book was $2.99, and the most expensive was $39.99. The publication date ranged from July 1992 to December 2012. Here is the same chart:
Obviously, Thomas Nelson have a much lower sales rank range, but it's interesting to see that, although the range is wider, their list prices cluster very heavily around a particular point between $15 to $20, and their sales ranks cluster between 0 and 25,000. Their best selling titles are actually selling well in general.
Here's a side-by-side comparison:
So, this tells me that Tate's bestsellers are predominantly from the last five years, by publication date, whereas Thomas Nelson's are spread over the last ten years with one or two from even earlier. (Not surprising; Tate was apparently established in 2001.) Tate's sales rankings drop quite quickly and plateau around 450,000 - 550,000, while Thomas Nelson's drop slowly and only taper off at the end of their top 100 list. Tate's list pricing is variable, but Thomas Nelson's displays a clear strategy where the majority of their bestsellers are priced in a narrow band.
The question I wanted to answer, here, was whether Tate's business model of charging authors $4,000 up front is a good deal or not based on nothing more than the sales figures I can access through Amazon. That investment may have been worth it, despite what Writer Beware says about Tate, if the data showed that authors can make back the money. My conclusion, therefore, is this.
Their top 100 titles have no pricing strategy. They have more paperbacks listed than a publisher that's been around in some form or another for over two hundred years. Their books do not sell, or if they do, it's not on Amazon.com.
Although I am working with somewhat limited data here, I feel confident in saying that Tate Publishing appears to be a bad deal for authors. If someone were so inclined, they could produce a quality book for about $1000, sell it through Amazon and Createspace, and keep all the profits. Unless Tate can demonstrate significant sales in other channels (thereby suggesting some kind of marketing that's missing Amazon, for example), their $4000 fee is not an investment - it's a loss.
(A note on the data: This is a limited set and the validity of the conclusion depends on how relevant Amazon's rankings are to actual sales - which I can't test, unfortunately. I have done as much as I can to ensure accuracy.)