By Lisa Abbate
For so many writers—fiction or nonfiction—the completion and publishing of a book is the fulfillment of a great dream. Completing a book is no small feat, and neither is getting it published. Some aspiring authors choose to seek out an agent and traditional publisher, while others opt to self-publish. Technology and competition has brought self-publishing to a new level and has offers some solid benefits—writers can get their books out sooner, have a bigger chunk of book sales, and participate in every step of the process. But you’ve got to do your due diligence and remember: Writers that approach publishing options more with their business mind and less with their emotions (even though it’s exciting to achieve your goals!) will ultimately be happier with the outcome.
To that end, I want to introduce you to Victoria Strauss.
An active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Victoria is Vice-Chair of the Committee on Writing Scams, and co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a highly-respected publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers.
Abbate: There are so many self-publishing choices out there, with new companies emerging constantly. What are some key aspects that a writer must consider when shopping for a self-publisher?
Strauss: There are plenty! One is how long the company has been in business. Several years in business indicates stability (for example, the company is less likely to suddenly vanish without a trace—always a risk with a brand-new startup).
Another thing you want to see is a large catalog of books, and a steady output. Again, this indicates stability and experience. Look the company up on Amazon, and sort the search results by date. This will give you a sense of how many books the company has published, and you can check to see if there are any suspicious hiatuses. For instance, if the company has been producing books at an average rate of a several dozen a month, but the numbers suddenly dropped or stopped a few months ago, something might be wrong.
There’s also price and packages. These vary from company to company, which makes comparison shopping especially important. True DIY companies like Lulu and CreateSpace charge nothing upfront; more elaborate services, which include extras like custom cover design, can charge upwards of $20,000.
Make sure that what the company offers is a good fit for your budget and your goals.
Abbate: What about look and feel of the books?
Strauss: Physical and design quality matter too. Many self-publishing writers design their own covers—something they may not have the expertise to do—so there are nearly always poor-quality covers on a self-publishing company’s website. But the company’s cover templates should at least look professional (comparable to what you’d see in a physical bookstore). It’s also a good idea to order a couple of books from any company you’re considering, so you can assess paper, binding, and interior design. Print-on-demand books can be indistinguishable from their offset-printed counterparts, but some self-pub companies skimp on paper and cover stock.
Abbate: I know that there are some self-publishers out there that market themselves as the more traditional publishers, but are really in the market of selling books back to the author at an inflated price. What should people watch for?
Strauss: Book price is critical. POD-printed books are expensive to produce, so cover prices will generally be higher than for offset-printed books, especially at longer lengths. Some self-pub companies let you set your own price, but others don’t give you a choice. Make sure the cover prices are not unrealistically high, and be aware of what your own book is likely to cost. Visit Amazon and your local bookstore and compare prices in your book category.
Abbate: I always go by the guideline that you shouldn’t offer a deal or contract that you wouldn’t accept yourself, knowing all the variables. What should self-publishing writers be mindful of in contracts?
Strauss: Look for a nonexclusive contract that covers only digital
rights (POD and electronic) and can be terminated at will. Your share of the proceeds shouldn’t be less than 20% of net price, or 75% of profit. Beware of any self-pub company that demands exclusivity, or puts a claim on subsidiary rights.
Then there’s reputation. You can find complaints about just about any self-publishing company, if you Google it. But some companies are the focus of more complaints than others, and that can be a warning sign, especially if the complaints all mention similar problems. There are resources at Writer Beware to help you assess a company’s reputation. Don’t bother with the Better Business Bureau; writers rarely complain to the BBB.
Abbate: What are some of the emotional aspects that a writer can get caught up in when looking at self-publishing, or being “accepted” by a company? It seems that some companies present as having an application process, when the reality is that they just want the money and really aren’t discerning.
Strauss: Straightforward self-publishing services, such as Lulu or Infinity, may sometimes present an overly-rosy picture of the benefits of self-publishing, but they don’t pretend to provide any sort of vetting process or quality filter. Anyone who can pay will be published, and that’s made very clear.
The problem arises with the more deceptive companies, which present themselves as “mainline” or “traditional” publishers despite charging fees, or call themselves “subsidy publishers” rather than vanity publishers or self-publishing services and say they don’t accept just anyone. For writers who are frustrated by multiple rejections, or who can’t get publishers or literary agents to pay attention to their queries, or who’ve been searching for so long that they’ve begun to believe they’ll never succeed, a contract offer from a company that claims to be selective is a huge validation, and can be a major incentive to ignore warning signs.
Abbate: It’s that point where the business decision is driven by emotion, perhaps without seeing the facts clearly. Every writer wants the satisfaction of seeing their work in print.
Strauss: Absolutely. But any time you are required to lay down cash in order to be published—whether it’s an upfront fee or a purchase requirement of some sort—you must abandon the idea that you have been chosen on merit. Yes, some fee-based publishing companies are at least somewhat selective—focusing on a specific market or genre, excluding manuscripts that are too long or short, rejecting those that are egregiously ungrammatical or poorly-spelled. But the fact that their profit is built on authors’ fees means that they can’t afford to exclude too much. So even if a company isn’t lying about picking and choosing (and some do lie), whatever selection process you’ve been subjected to isn’t rigorous enough to provide true validation of your work. (Conversely, it doesn’t condemn your work, either. A fee-based company will as happily publish a good book as a bad one.)
Another emotional pitfall comes with not doing your research. Many writers who decide to self-publish make the decision based on incomplete or faulty information. Writer Beware often hears from authors who believe they’ve been scammed by self-publishing companies, when in reality it was their expectations that were the problem—they didn’t realize that the average self-pubbed book sells fewer than 200 copies, or that the wholesale distribution offered by most self-pub companies is only half the distribution picture.
Abbate: Many people think that they have distribution—that the fact that they self-publish a book means it’s easy to get a book into a bookstore or on Amazon—when nothing could be further from the truth.
Strauss: As noted above, there are two pieces to the book distribution picture. There are wholesalers (such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bertrams, and Brodart), which provide warehousing and fulfillment services for publishers and self-publishing companies. They keep publishers’ books on hand (in either physical or virtual form, depending on the publisher’s business model), fill orders as they come in, and accept returns. Distributors (such as PGW/Perseus, Independent Publishers Group, and Consortium) do everything a wholesaler does—plus, they maintain a sales force to sell publishers’ books directly into bookstores.
Self-publishing companies (and fee-based publishers in general) offer only the wholesale piece of this picture. That means that your book will be available at most online booksellers, and can be ordered in bookstores if someone asks for it. But it will not actually be stocked in stores, because without the direct sales component provided by a distributor, the stores won’t know it exists. For volume sales, you need a balance of online and offline presence—and for wide offline presence, you need a distributor. Many writers don’t realize this.
Abbate: If you were going to self-publish a book, what would you walk away from in a contract?
Strauss: Exclusivity. Any claim on subsidiary rights. Any contract that wasn’t terminable at will. A share of less than 20% of net price, or less than 75% of profit.
Victoria Strauss is the author of seven fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City). She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. She maintains the popular Writer Beware website (www.writerbeware.com) and blog (www.accrispin.blogspot.com). She received the Service to SFWA Award in 2009. Her personal website is http://www.victoriastrauss.com/
Lisa Abbate is a nonfiction author’s coach, writer, and editor for many innovative technology companies. She’s been a longtime contributing writer at Absolute Write and editor at Coyote Wild. Her website is www.wordmountain.com. She is also the founder and executive director of an environmental organization, visionforsalem.org.
You can find more interviews with Victoria Strauss on these websites: