With indie authors and self-publishing making the news quite frequently lately (see: Self-Published Titles Dominate Top of E-book Best-Sellers List), one might be surprised to see that the reception for self-publishing companies and author service companies is already souring. Not me. It was announced last Tuesday that several authors are suing Author Solutions (or iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford, AuthorHouse, as it is also conjectured they are all different heads of the same beast, see: Self-Publishers Want Millions From Penguin), and this is just one of many publicized complaints. Of the many arguments against self-publishing services and author service companies, here are a few key ones:
1) These services profit from authors’ wishful thinking, idealism, and industry ignorance, charging thousands for services that don’t deliver and creating products that don’t live up to their promise.
2) These services employ aggressive sales techniques that corner authors, making it difficult for them to understand their options, making it more likely for authors to accept contract terms that they may not be comfortable with.
3) They do not provide authors with due royalties, nor do they provide accurate sales statements, if any statements at all.
The Empty Promises and Fraudulent Price Tags of Self-Publishing Services and Author Service Companies
First, the “promises” of worldwide distribution, books with all major retailers, widespread success, and social media prowess should make an author wary. No publisher can promise success, not even a traditional publishing houses with a large(r) marketing budgets and hefty connections. Even incredible books are often not picked up by major retailers, not reviewed by major bloggers, and not given the social media applause that they rightly deserve. Nothing has changed with self-publishing. It is still difficult.
Book reading is a niche market. According to the Pew Research Center, In 2011, almost twenty percent of people over the age of sixteen read no books, and thirty-two percent read less than five (remember, this is number of books read, not number of books purchased—the latter is likely to be smaller). The number of books published, however, has oversaturated this market, far exceeding demand. For example, in 2009, there were about 300,000 books published, and in 2010, when self-published ebooks boomed, there were over three million books published. You do the math. Not every book will be a runaway success; it would be impossible for every book published to have a large readership. Do not believe a publisher who promises, or attaches a price tag to, success.
Aggressive Sales Techniques, the Relentless Cold Call, and Opaque Contract Deals
This is our promise to our authors, clients, would-be authors, and would-be clients: we will not hound you, call you, email you obsessively, sign you up to spam email lists, or seduce you with vague offers and obtuse deals. We will reach out to you if we feel that you have something unique to offer, a story to tell, a legacy to celebrate, but we will always do it professionally and courteously.
When you self- or custom-publish a book, you should keep your rights. You might allow (or ask!) your self-publishing service to help you with distribution. In this case, the company will take a distributor’s cut, and may request terms similar to other distribution models to make it a simpler relationship for both you and the publisher/distributor. The publisher should not, however, require any ownership of the book. The self-publishing service is providing you with excellent (we hope) and professional (we hope) editing, copyediting, proofing, design, research, writing, photography, printing (if applicable), warehousing, and distribution services. Because you are paying for these services (and essentially bearing the “risk” of publishing), you own your book in the end, and therefore any money earned from its sale (aside from that which covers distribution costs).
With that established, you should be earning royalties. Royalties should be the money earned from a sale after retailers and distributors take their cuts. Make sure you can read your contract and understand your royalties before committing to a publisher. We’ve seen contracts given to our clients by other services, and frankly they are unconscionable. You should be able to understand your contract. An Orange Frazer contract is two and a half pages; it is concise, straightforward, and easily understandable. We send royalty reports to all of our authors and clients twice a year, so that we are always held accountable to our contract and to you. After all, self-publishing is a traditional business model. You pay for a service, and you receive a product that you can sell. Luckily for you, though, the product is a beautifully designed and long-lasting book, which makes this business model fun!
In Conclusion, What is Self-Publishing
There are many arenas of self- and custom-publishing, and those that show up on the e-book bestseller lists are only one portion of them. The grandfather who published an illustrated book of family stories for his friends and family is an indie author, despite the fact that there is no barcode on the book and no retail shelf in its future. The nonprofit community foundation that published a celebration of its home community is a self-published entity. There are many shapes and sizes and formats for self-published books, and we will only further misconstrue the industry (and its exciting potential) if we continue to muddle it with assumptions and generalizations. OFP helps individuals, nonprofits, educational institutions, families, community foundations, businesses, artists, chefs, and many, many others create meaningful and professional books, and we do it every day. This is the self-publishing world that we believe in.