Everyone knows it’s hard to break old habits. Ask any smoker. Ask anyone who was raised in the 50’s why they cringe when a six year old comes up and says “Hi Marsha!”. I was taught that all adults are addressed as Mr. and Mrs. It was a matter of respect, plain and simple. The newer generation thinks of that as being old fashioned, but since when is respect old fashioned? I’ve stayed in touch, over the many years, with neighbours who were good friends with my parents back when I was a kid. They were always Mr. and Mrs Solarski to me, and to this day, even though they’ve told me a bazillion times to address them by their first names, they are still Mr. and Mrs Solarski to me. My tongue would fall out of my head if I ever said “Hi Stan!”
Okay so how does this relate to Vanity Press? Simple. All the years I was being published in print, there was a distinct trend to turn up ones nose at authors who could not get a contract with a publisher and went the route of having their book printed themselves. There were stories of writers with garages full of unsold books because, of course, book stores and major distributors like K-mart etc wouldn’t take those self published books. It was costly as well, not like the print on demand books we have now. Then you had to commit to the press printing X number of copies and you had to pay up front for the whole lot. Very very very rarely were these “vanity press” books ever noticed by a publisher who then waved a *real* contract at the author and agreed to publish the book mainstream. For most, they had to pretty well had to sell the entire inventory in order to make any money, which meant a lot of slogging around visiting bookstores (mostly independent booksellers who, coincidentally, also began vanishing as the Big Boys like Borders and Chapters and Waldenbooks began to flourish), sending out letters (no email back then), making phone calls etc etc etc. The failures far outnumbered the successes and I’m betting there are still garages full of unsold, cheaply printed books out there gathering dust and mites.
These days, it’s all changed. An author who can’t, or doesn’t want to go the traditional route through a publishing house, now has the option of publishing the book herself through distributors like Amazon and Smashwords and Barnes and Noble. The Ebook has come into its own, shaking up the traditional publishing houses as much as it’s shaken up the huge bookstore chains, (bye bye Borders) the distributors, the industry on a whole. Amazon has emerged as the new Goliath, opening its doors to authors, giving them an alternative to contracts that tie the rights for a book up for decades, to royalties that don’t even meet the bare minimum wage, to the deeply ingrained belief that to be a *real* author, you have to be published in print.
Most self published authors these days have seen the light. They’ve seen the monthly paycheckes that come as regular as clockwork and earn them 70% royalties on every sale. They scoff at the old system of being paid an 8% pittance twice a year and speak boldly of this new revolution. Authors like myself who had books that had gone out of print saw a whole new generation of readers willing and eager to read their backlist…books that were big and bold and lusty that had gone out of style with all the cutbacks and editorial controls imposed by publishers in the past decade. They discovered the freedom to write and publish what they wanted, not what some suit inNew Yorkdeemed to be the next hot trend.
That was why I was so surprised a few weeks back to see a discussion on a chat room board about agents and publishers. These same new wave indie authors were swarming like flies around an agent I had never heard of, eager to sign with him, eager to give up 15% of their earnings…for what? For the miniscule chance they might be picked up by a publishing house and offered a print contract?
It was apparent to me that old habits die harder than I thought. Some of these indie authors, who months ago strode boldly into the new world of self-publishing and lauded their bravery and success… still think *real* success means having a book on a store shelf. They still think it *validates* them as an author to have an agent, to sign contracts that will tie up the rights to those books for years into the foreseeable future, and for what? 8% on print, 25% on ebook sales?
Self publishing is no longer considered vanity press. It’s practical, it’s profitable, it offers complete freedom to writers as well as readers who are tired of the same old same old cookie cutter books that follow the current *trend* dictated by that suit in New York. It also gives the author total control over everything from the content to the cover, to how long the book can remain in distribution. With a click of a key that book can come down off Amazon or Smashwords or Barnes and Noble. Try that with a print book. *snort* The same wave that brought ebooks and indie publishing surging over the stodgy world of print publishing also woke authors up to the hell and angst of having to fight, beg, plead, and cajole to get the rights back to books that hadn’t been in print for ten years or more. Print contracts come with clauses that grant the publisher exclusive rights to that book for as long as the book is on sale somewhere on the planet. What that means is that a book that has been languishing in print for years, and is still available through Amazon—and I’ll use myself as an example—such as The Pride of Lions, only has to meet the bare minimum of copies sold required by the contract for Dell to retain the rights. The bare minimum in PoL’s case was 300 copies in a 12 month period.
Let me say that again. 300 copies sold over a 12 month period. Royalties on that? Less than a thousand dollars, from which I still had to deduct the agent’s 15%.
The book was originally printed in 1988 by a company that went bankrupt, so not much of a ripple made there. The advance was 10 thousand, which was never earned out…meaning I never saw another penny over and above the 10K. The second issue was through Dell in 1997—to the mathematically challenged, like myself, that was 14 years ago. I made that sale on my own, without going through my agent, who had told me “it’s an old book, no publisher is going to print an old book”. Okay. Right. He didn’t take into account the brazen hussy part of my character that badgered my editor until she crumbled and said yes, okay, we’ll reprint POL and Blood of Roses! The advance was 25K, because it was a reissue, and it did earn out within about 6 years and sold consistently for another few years but after that it fell off to just a trickle, and in the last two years, barely met the 300 minimum.
Along came the Kindle, the iPad, the Nook, and the ebook revolution. A few of us were quick to climb on the wave and quicker to see where it was heading. Quick enough to dash off letters to publishers asking innocently for the return of rights to our backlist books. When I attempted to get my agent to do the dirty work for me, thinking it might expedite the process, the answer I got was: “Why would you want the rights back? Even selling a few copies a year is better than nothing.”
End of agent.
So I had to do it myself. One of my books was selling an abysmal 35 copies in a 12 month period, but the publisher still held the rights because…hello…they don’t voluntarily give them back. The author has to put the request in writing, the request has to go through the proper channels which could take upwards of nine months. All for a book that sold 35 copies in 12 months.
I dashed off letters to Dell and to NAL, the two publishers who held the rights to my backlist. The Dell letter was aimed at two of the lowest selling books, but at the last minute, I added the titles of all but the three Scotland books which had shown a slight increase in sales for the 6 months prior to my request (due to ebook sales, I would later discover) so I didn’t think I had a chance of getting those rights back. I was lucky. I got back the rights to all the books I asked for, including the two from NAL and one from Harlequin—which, as any Harlequin author knows is like pulling teeth from an alligator.
Within a few weeks of getting those rights back, I had done some light revisions (another benefit of self-pubbing) made covers, formatted them and reissued them myself as ebooks on Amazon and Smashwords, joining dozens of other authors who had backlist books and were discovering this exciting new venue to reach a whole new generation of readers.
The past year, since I first dipped a toe in the water with the ebook edition of China Rose, those dozens have become hundreds. The old adage “if it looks too good to be true it probably isn’t” doesn’t hold true, for once. Amazon promises 70% royalties and it delivers. Amazon lets the author set the price, lets the author design the cover, lets the author decide if the book stays up for sale or comes down, thus giving us complete control of content and rights.
So why do some of these indie authors…ones who have already seen a measure of success selling through Amazon (and I’m talking thousands of copies) why would they actively seek out an agent (who will deduct 15% from all sales) or a contract with a print publisher (who, if they’re lucky, will offer a 5K advance against 8% royalties on print editions and 25% on ebooks, and tie up the rights for years into the future)?
Beats the hell out of me.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see your book in print, nothing wrong with aiming for the NY Times Bestseller list, nothing wrong with wanting to walk into a bookstore and see the shelves loaded down with your books.
The chances of that happening for an unknown, untried author is slim to none. Selling five thousand ebooks at $2.99 does not translate into selling five thousand paperbacks at $10.99 or five thousand hardcover books at $25.99. I broke down the royalty numbers in another blog so I won’t do it here again, but you can easily do the math. 5K at 70% of $2.99 vs 5K at 8% of $10.99 minus 15% for the agent.
Self publishing is NOT vanity press. Self publishing is smart, clever, practical, and profitable. I suspect it’s the publishers and out of work agents who are trying to maintain the appearance of offering *validation* for an author.
Dear readers, I was *validated* 25 years ago and I would not go back to print publishing. The book I am working on now—happily so, having been told by a print publisher that it was unsellable because no one buys high seas adventure stories anymore—will be going directly to ebook, as will anything and everything I write in the future.
I validate myself.