How self-publishing really works
01.01.70 | Jane Smith
This is the second in a series of blogs by Jane Smith about the phenomenal growth in self-publishing. The first, Should you write on?, was published last week.
When my car needs servicing, I pay someone else to do the work. I could learn to do it myself, but the results are quicker and better if I pay a mechanic. Similarly, there are several reputable self-publishing companies which offer in-house editing, typesetting, design and marketing services to writers who choose to self-publish but don't have the inclination, knowledge or expertise to drive their own books through the editing and production process alone. Self-publishing is a growing area and as more books make the leap from self-publication to mainstream publication (consider G P Taylor's Shadowmancer), its reputation is improving.
Vanity publishing, however, is still notorious for exploiting writers and costing them money they have little real hope of ever earning back. Jonathan Clifford, who invented the "vanity" term, defines a vanity press as "any company that charges clients to publish a book": these charges can consist of upfront fees or can be made by selling books back to their writers, rather than on to new readers—often at inflated prices.
When Osprey Publishing's new joint venture with AuthorHouse was reported on this site last week, Osprey's managing director Rebecca Smart "brushed off any comparison with vanity publishers"; similarly, YouWriteOn has insisted that its publishing schemes don't constitute vanity publishing. But as these schemes offer paid-for publication packages how can we be sure that they really are offering self-publication?
The answer depends on who retains the most knowledge and control of the publishing process of the books concerned.
While some self-published writers pay others to edit and design their books, they retain control of all those services and usually understand precisely how self-publication differs from mainstream publication: they've made an informed choice about the future of their books and the likelihood of recouping or losing the money they've invested in publishing them. But writers who sign with vanity presses often think it's the norm for writers to pay for publication, and that new writers just can't get published unless they're celebrities or have mysterious contacts within the publishing world. While I've heard from several well-informed self-published writers, I've yet to meet a single vanity-published writer who fully understands how profoundly vanity publishing differs from the mainstream route.
A self-published writer will have his imprint named on the copyright page of his book; the ISBN will be registered to that imprint with the ISBN Agency; and he'll have full control over all aspects of his own publication, from approving cover design to buying print. He'll know exactly how many copies have been printed and sold; and how much money he's made or lost as a result. But if the imprint named on his book's copyright page belongs to someone else's publishing service, then logic follows that he can't be self-published: and if the author doesn't quite know how many copies have been printed, or how well those copies are selling, how can he consider himself to have any control at all?
So, do the publishing opportunities offered by Osprey and AuthorHouse, and YouWriteOn, constitute vanity publishing or self-publishing? They involve up-front fees; their writers appear to have little or no control over their books' design, printing, or sales; and most of the books published by these two schemes are likely to have the publishing companies' imprints on the copyright page. I'll leave it up to you to make a judgement.