Copyright 2006 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
Subsidy Press Questions
Should I Publish with AuthorHouse, iUniverse or Xlibris?
Question) What's the difference between a vanity press and a subsidy press?
Answer) There isn't one, but "Vanity Press" has never been a fair description of what subsidy presses do. I'm a huge advocate of self-publishing, but I understand that some authors don't have the time or the business ability to go into business for themselves, which is what self-publishing requires. Subsidy presses fill an important gap for those authors, and to assert that they are "vain" because they want to have their book published and can't place it with a trade publisher is ridiculous. As far as I'm concerned (and I've been making a living as a trade author and self publisher for the past eight years), it's the idiots in the industry look down on authors who choose the subsidy publishing route who are vain (and pompous as well). Still, unless you want to create your own book company and self publish, you should at least try to get some trade publishers to look at your book first. The only way your book will sell through a subsidy press is if you market it, and it takes the same skills to find a publisher as to find book customers.
Q) Which subsidy press do you recommend?
A) I've never used a subsidy press myself, but I've received hundreds, if not thousands of e-mails on the subject, so I do have some opinions:-) My first suggestion to authors is always Booklocker. The main reason is that I like their contract, it's short and easy to understand, and they pay a relatively high royalty. I've spoken to one of the owners on the phone a few times, and he's a serious guy, they aren't in the business of selling dreams, like the majority of subsidy presses. They also don't accept every manuscript that comes through the door, because their business model is actually based on selling books, rather than selling services to authors.
Q) I've read online about the big three vanity publishers, Authorhouse, iUniverse and Xlibris, and I wonder if you could help me pick one.
A) My first choice, as noted previously, is "none of the above." However, the big three have over 40,000 books in the Amazon catalog, so somebody must be choosing them. I've heard from authors who have used all of the above, and the best feedback has been for iUniverse, which is owned by Barnes&Noble. I'll give some highlights for each of the three below, but keep in mind they all share one thing in common. Their business models are based on selling authors services (publication and marketing), not selling books. That part is entirely up to you, so don't waste any extra money on their promotional packages.
iUniverse had around 11,500 titles listed at Amazon when I checked, though some of those are multiple listings (i.e., e-book or hardcover versions counted separately). Their cheapest publication program is $299, but that's entirely without distribution, so only relevant if you want to buy a few copies and give them to your family. Their least expensive package that will make your book available in stores (via special order) and online costs $459. You don't get any extra editorial work or proofreading with any of their packages, these cost extra. E-books are setup for free starting at the $459 level, and I don't see any value in their more expensive plans. iUniverse offers two interesting advantages over the other big subsidy publishers. One is their Star Program, which gets your book special treatment, including stocking in Barnes&Noble stores. Based on Amazon listings, less than 1% of iUniverse books are chosen for the program. If you pay them $249 for an "Editorial Review" and the editor likes your book, it supposedly increases your chances of getting in, but it sounds like a bit of a lottery ticket to me:-) iUniverse also has an interesting royalty trade-off option for authors. If you opt for 10% of net royalty, vs their standard 20% of net, they'll increase the discount that give to booksellers, which could theoretically increase the chances your book will get on store shelves. Don't bet on it. The number of subsidy published books that generate enough sales for stores to justify stocking them is vanishingly small. When it comes to online sales and special order sales, the discount is pretty much irrelevant. They charge $99 if you change your mind and shift the royalty one way or the other. You get zero free marketing with iUniverse, their cheapest package starts at $200, they sell small NYT and USA Today ads for $2,500. As stated above, I've never heard of anybody recouping even a fraction of the cost on one of these ads. See the book marketing article excerpted from my book.
Xlibris basic publication services start at $500. Unlike iUniverse, Xlibris does not acquire any rights to your book, the agreement is non-exclusive, so you can even publish somewhere else simultaneously. There basic package allows you to select your book and cover design from some basic templates. Their "professional" package for $900 includes a wider range of templates, allows for tables and an index, and includes a hardcover version. They also file the copyright for you (a $30 value). Their "Custom" package for $1600 is essentially the same except you get to talk to the designer and give your input. Royalties in all cases are 10% of net. Xlibris marketing services ads are $399, and they have a whole variety of chachkas like bookmarks, postcards, business cards, starting at $65. When's the last time you bought a book because somebody gave you a promotional bookmark? Xlibris has something called a book review campaign for $99, though the odds of your actually getting reviewed anywhere meaningful are near zero. The serious promotional money (all wasted, in my humble opinion) starts with newswire releases at $999 and peaks with press releases to the whole universe (nobody reads them) for $1999. In terms of basic cost and the author retaining all rights, Xlibris isn't a bad deal if you just want to get into print and forget about it.
AuthorHouse is the biggest of the subsidy publishers, with over 20,000 titles in Amazon at last check. Their cheapest publication package starts at $698, and they tack on a $20/title format/year fee for distribution. They charge $150 for filing a $30 copyright (takes me about five minutes to fill out short form TX). They also charge $1199 for an original cover - around a $200 value if you comparison shop on the web for independent designers. AuthorHouse also out prices iUniverse on the most useless investment you can make, that New York Times as, $2650 in this case. They also charge $699 to accept returns, which I find quite bizarre, considering all three of the big three use Lightning Source for their printing and distribution, and Lightning Source doesn't charge anything for accepting returns, outside of the printing fee. Their various other marketing services all strike me as overpriced, I can't imagine paying $250 for 1000 business cards, not that authors have any use for business cards in the first place. AuthorHouse has been the most successful of the subsidy publishers in selling their services to authors, but they strike me as the worst deal of the three.
Q) I just approved got my first book through a subsidy publisher and the back cover of the book ended up on the last page! The publisher wants several hundred dollars to create a new file to correct it, claiming it's my fault because I signed off on the galley. Am I getting robbed?
A) That certainly sounds like a rip-off, and it hard to see how they could screw it up in any case A printer would just have a straight hourly fee, and it sounds like two minutes work. Unfortunately, if their contract stipulates that you'll be responsible to pay for any corrections that you don't report based on the galley copy, you may be stuck paying, though I'd walk away from them if the contract allowed me to. A reasonable subsidy press like Booklocker would do the whole job for that amount of money, probably pay better royalties as well.
Q) I paid my subsidy publisher $2350.00 for a 40 word ad in the New York Times book review that resulted in no sales I can detect. Is this normal, or did I do something wrong?
A) The general rule of thumb I've heard from publishers who have experimented with large NYT Book Review ads is you need a big quote praising the book from a really famous person or it's money thrown out the window. I wasn't aware that they had these smaller, less expensive ads, and I suspect you're correct in worrying that it wasn't the best possible use of your money. Most subsidy publishers business models are based on selling services to authors, not on selling books. I saw a boast on one of these sites that they had just reached one million dollars in royalties paid. When I divided that number by the 7,000+ books they published, it came out to less than $150 per author, and that probably amounts to the take on books the authors hand-sell to friends and family. The only advice I can offer you, from experience, is that any advertising money spent on books written by unknown authors is a waste of money. The only way most authors get their fiction books out there is to do lots of readings wherever somebody will let them, and to be very good at self-promotion.
Q) Is it harder to get fiction or non-fiction published with a vanity press?
A) If you're talking about the big three, AuthorHouse, Xlibris and iUniverse, it doesn't make a difference; they publish whatever you send them. If you use the search function on Amazon to look at all of the titles published by any of them, you'll see that the majority of the books are actually fiction. To get a random sample, use the "Sort by publication date" option. However, if you do a bestseller sort, you'll find that 4 out of 5 titles that are actually selling are non-fiction. To oversimplify, book buyers who are looking for information are far more likely to buy a nonfiction book by an unknown, even if it's published by a known subsidy press, while fiction readers are pretty unlikely to by a title from an unknown author unless it's very well promoted (by the author's own efforts).
Q) If you don't like the term "Vanity Publishing", why do you use vanity in the file name for this page?
A) You got me there:-) Seriously though, I really don't like it and don't think it's appropriate. It's just that I used 8 letter file names for the Q&A section of my website and q_subsidy is 9 letters - ergo, q_vanity. Form follows function.