Publishing your book


Part II Vanity Publishing or Self Publishing?



[Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.                  - Samuel Johnson]


To Samuel Johnson is also attributed the statement: Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.  Oh dear . . .  Am I then a blockhead that I publish my writings on the Internet, or contribute regularly to charity journals, all without pecuniary advantage?


I could echo Bishop Berkeley and say: Thus do I spurn Dr. Johnson, yet I suspect that when Johnson referred to money he simply equated that with reward.  Perhaps he was incapable of recognising reward in other than monetary terms.  But there are other rewards: the reward of recognition; of achievement; of respect and admiration.  There is also the personal reward of positive self-esteem.  Only a blockhead, then, would write except for reward? Yes, that has a better ring.  


So what is self-publishing and how does it differ from vanity publishing?


As long as there have been authors, there have been publishers.  And as long as authors and publishers have co-existed, so long have they been in conflict.  This was perhaps inevitable, given that their aims and aspirations have always been opposed.  The author wants to see his work published and publication does not necessarily mean in print.  Indeed, the first form of publication was by word of mouth and the primary aim of the publisher has been to make money; from the storytellers of old who travelled from place to place recounting tales which they may have invented themselves but which, just as often, they purchased from others, to the latter day publishers who purchase the material and then sell it for profit.


This conflict of interest led just as inevitably to writers deciding to try and publish their own works.  In the main they failed, because they lacked both the marketing skills to sell their published works and recover the costs of publication, and because time spent publishing and marketing their writings meant time lost to the primary task of the writing itself.


Of course, there have been some notable exceptions, one of the best known being Mark Twain who published his own Huckleberry Finn.  But he was already a well-known and successful author.  He simply saw no reason any longer to give the major proceeds of his writing to his publisher.


A noteworthy exception to this statement is the successful publication of my own first work. This earned more than the combined earnings to date of my subsequent six books.  But that was the fortunate result of a number of factors that do not normally obtain and about which more anon.


On the other hand, although the conditions which make successful self-publishing so rare still apply, the remarkable reduction in publishing costs over the years, mainly as a result of technological change in the printing industry, means that even when a book is not successfully marketed, the amount which the author needs to spend is far less than was previously the case.


Furthermore, if your subject is likely to appeal to a small number of people, not only are you unlikely to find a commercial publisher, but if it is an easily identifiable group of people, you will certainly make more money from self-publishing and marketing the book yourself.


This is one reason why ASPEN prefers to help people publish works of non-fiction; even though the cost advantages of self-publishing are equally valid whatever the subject matter of the book, the marketing activity is simplified if the potential market can be easily targeted.


If you are determined to see your book in print, regardless of commercial considerations . . . if, in other words, you are prepared to risk your money in financing the publication, why not then go to one of the vanity publishers who will do the job for you?  In this respect it is worth recognising that a vanity publisher will rarely, if ever, describe itself in those terms.  Their advertisements are to be found in the small ads sections of most magazines, and particularly literary journals, or magazines directed at the senior citizens.  And they are very skilfully worded, suggesting that they are looking for new manuscripts, will help you to publish your book, will advise you on the marketing thereof, and have a history of very successful publishing.


In the main they are genuine and trustworthy journeymen.  But they are not publishers in the conventional sense; they are printers who provide a modicum of assistance with the subsequent marketing of the books they have printed.  And the cost of that help is escalated way beyond the actual cost of the printing.


An example.  Before (self) publishing my last work, a novel, I decided to check out prices with some of the publishing services advertising in such magazines as Writers Monthly and the Oldie.  I had already successfully published and marketed a number of works of non-fiction and had also had other books published by orthodox publishers.  In every case I had earned more from my self-published books than I had enjoyed from those published for me.  But I was concerned about the amount of time I would need to devote to marketing a work of fiction.


The best offer I received was from publishers who claimed to have been providing their service for one hundred years.  They proposed a price of around 9,761 for the printing of 4,000 copies of a 300 page book in paperback format.  They suggested a selling price of 9.99 per copy.  Their price would include cover and cover design.  They would help me to market the book.  On the face of it, not too bad.  Less than 2.50 per copy to produce and a 300 per cent profit on every copy sold.


Let us examine this proposal in more depth.  Their offer of help in marketing was restricted to suggesting where copies should be sent for review (no guarantee that it would be reviewed), who might be approached for media interviews (no certainty that such interviews would result), and how to deal with stockists such as booksellers (no indication that they might agree to hold stocks).  And if I were lucky enough to find a stockist who might take more than a single copy, I would probably have to give them a trade discount of anything from 40 to 60 per cent.


Furthermore the publisher would not print up the entire 4,000 copies.  This quantity would be available to me, but they would only hold minimum stocks. "We will bind a minimum of 250 copies at the outset, and further copies if demanded by sales."  This is actually proposed as a benefit to the writer.  As a writer, you will not have to find or fund storage space for your books.  We will hold them for you and supply them as and when you require them.  Of course, the likelihood that you will sell 4,000 copies is as remote as the possibility that you will have written a best-seller.  Not that people do not write best-sellers, who have never published a book before.  I think there was one in 1999. So what happens to all those thousands of books that you have failed to sell?  Okay, thats a rhetorical question.


I then went to the printer who had printed my previously self-published book very professionally, very attractively, and very economically.  They quoted a price of 1,100 for printing up 300 copies, including the cover (which they would not design, of course).  It cost me another 100 to have my cover designed.  Cost per book therefore was 4.00.  I could put a cover price of under 7.00 and still afford to give stockists a normal discount.  I would not make money from the venture, but any loss could not exceed the total cost of 1,200 a figure (if worse came to worst) that I could live with.  But, assuming I succeeded in disposing of the entire stock of 300, the cost of printing further copies (known as the run-on cost) would be a mere 150 per 100 copies . . . 1.50 a copy.  Compare that with the vanity publishers offer quoted above.  Which would you prefer?  Okay, so thats another rhetorical question.


To summarise.  There is nothing wrong with vanity publishing, but it is better to think of it as vanity printing.  And there are some very inexpensive printing deals available these days.  So work out your bottom line.  What is the maximum amount you are prepared to expend for the glorious sight of your name in print, your own book in your hands, copies given to your family and friends and given the right amount of effort and effective marketing procedure the possibility of actually getting an income from the experiment.


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