Forms of Publishing

After seeing the latest round of self-publishing scams being inflicted on naive author wannabes, I can't help but feel a little angry. They cut a little too close to home, you see. A year or two ago, before I began my education in the world of publishing, they might have snapped me up and fed on my dreams of being a professional writer. I'm not alone in this. Agents and publishers across the net, particularly on Writer Beware, spend an inordinate amount of time railing against these scams to try to keep prospective authors informed. That's great, of course... but true self-publishing is getting lost in the noise of the imposters, so much so that I think newbie authors might be turned away from self-publishing completely.

It's worth talking about the different forms of publication, if only so people are aware of which are the scams and which are legit. Actual self-publishing isn't a failure, and it isn't a sin against the mainstream that will scupper your career. Here's how I split the world of publishing in my head:

Mainstream

Straight up mainstream publishing isn't actually all that complicated. You write a manuscript, spend at least some time on polishing it yourself (don't be tempted to have an editor work on it! Do your own edits, and learn from them), then either contact a publisher directly or an agent who will sell your work to a publisher. In either case, you need to follow their submission guidelines down to the letter, and don't badger them for a response. You're supposed to be a professional, after all, so you should really behave like one.

Whether you go directly to a publisher or try for an agent first depends on your own feelings, really. Agents are knowledgeable when it comes to contracts and they are your advocate and advisor in the publishing world; for this, they take on average 15% of what you make. A good agent is worth that and much more, if you choose to get one, and many authors do if only because much of mainstream publishing is intimidating.

The notion that you can't get published without an agent and you can't get an agent if you're not published is simply a myth. If your work is high quality and more importantly marketable, you will find a home for it somewhere. The Publisher's Marketplace is a good site to start with.

Independent

Independent publishing is a different beast; an evolution of the old style of self-publishing brought into the modern age. Indies have no mainstream publisher to answer to, and no agent to take part of their earnings. They also have no distribution or marketing, and probably no presence in book stores. Everything, from the cover design to the writing to the promotion has to be done without support. The writer's audience has to be built up somehow, usually through word of mouth or social networks, or just plain grunt work to get their name into the public consciousness.

This is very, very hard work, and not for the faint of heart. But it does mean that if an author has a very good book that the mainstream press doesn't believe will sell, for whatever reason - or if they want to go it alone and avoid the mainstream press altogether - they can publish themselves and start working on their career as an indie. You can publish your own book on Amazon, for example, and leave it to Amazon's print-on-demand system to produce a physical copy whenever someone orders it. You can publish an ebook on your website. All profits are yours to keep, but you must be ready to take on your writing as a business - and your fans are your customers. A high level of technical aptitude is absolutely essential.

Zoe Winters is a big advocate of indie publishing, and her blog is one place to start getting info. {added by edit - she's also blogging about indie stuff over at www.indiereader.com, and you can buy her book about becoming an indie author over on Amazon. Thanks Zoe!}

Support

Expert speakers, minor celebrities, and anyone that caters to a niche audience falls into this kind of publishing. Mainstream press won't publish their book because there isn't enough interest, and they've no reason to go independent when their primary source of revenue isn't writing. Small print runs, say a couple of hundred books at a time, through a print-on-demand service like Lulu.com would be the norm here and their purpose is to supplement the main income source. Local interest books would fall into this area as well, along with most books that are published and sold for charity. The point is that the book-selling itself isn't the main focus.

(There's a fair bit of fluidity between support, indie and mainstream publishing, believe it or not. If you sell a few thousand copies of your book as an indie or a support, for example, that might be enough to get a mainstream press interested - and then it's on to royalties, movie options, and foreign rights.)

This is a kind of self-publishing that doesn't require the back-breaking work of the indies, but you need to have an audience to begin with who are interested in buying your high quality work - otherwise you fall into the category of...

Vanity

If you have no audience, the mainstream press won't touch your work, and you can't be bothered with all the indie grunt work to get yourself known, then you're probably indulging in vanity publishing. You'll pay for a few copies off Lulu.com, or upload your book to Amazon, just so you can say 'I've been published'.

There's nothing wrong with this, but let's be clear - it's not a writing credit, and it's not the start of a career.

And now, the Scams

The big problem with the scams is that they present themselves as being something they're not. Author Solutions, Xlibris, and others like them (who I am not linking to, sorry) draw hopeful authors in and entice them with promises of distribution in bookstores, and promotional efforts, and all kinds of flashy things... and they want to be paid for it.

The reality is just not that simple. They have no distribution other than a listing in Ingram, and 99% of bookstores will refuse to buy their books because they won't operate on a sale or return basis like the mainstream presses. Their promotional packages are overpriced and ultimately a waste of money; they will frequently charge for services that the author could easily do themselves for free. They say that they've 'removed the barriers to publishing'. They really depend on gullible authors buying their overpriced products and buying copies of their own book.

Believe it or not, PublishAmerica got pranked by a group of sci-fi and fantasy authors who wanted to show them up. PA, like a lot of these outfits, said that they only accept quality material and their books were no worse than any other mainstream press. Under the leadership of James D. Macdonald, Atlanta Nights was born, and PA dutifully accepted the terrible manuscript and offered them a deal - if, of course, they would pay the fees. Unsurprisingly, they withdrew the offer once the hoax was revealed.

In many cases, authors pay to play with these companies and then use their now published book to try to get into the mainstream. Some of the companies have even formed relationships with mainstream presses and dangle the carrot of true validation in front of the hopefuls. It's a sham, unfortunately - the chances of someone getting a work published by AuthorHouse picked up by a mainstream press is about the same as the author being struck by lightning. Agents hate them for their predatory business model, and there's a stream of bad press about them online as authors are picked up, chewed up and spat out.

The Washington Post has a great article on the whole phenomenon.

Caveat scriptor, I'm afraid. There is no shortcut to publishing success. AuthorHouse, PublishAmerica and others may seem like an easy way into the world of books, but the difference between the easy way and the hard way is that the hard way works.