Friday, January 12, 2007

A Fool and His Money...

...or her money, as the case may be, often part company in the name of "publishing." And yes, ladies and gentlemen, we will soon get another chance to part with our money if we so desire, just for the privilege of calling ourselves "published" authors.

Cheryl Dickow, a Catholic nonfiction author, has just started a new venture called Bezalel Books, offering the opportunity for Catholic fiction writers to have another place and outlet for their manuscripts. She (rightfully) bemoans the lack of a Catholic presence in inspirational fiction, which is presently pretty much dominated by the Prod end of things...something many of us Catholic girls have been complaining about for awhile. :-) However, what she proposes to do about it is...shall we say...less than enthralling.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for the small price of $775, give or take a few other charges that will no doubt creep into the mix, you can sidestep all the "traditional" publishing headaches, avoid paying an agent a commission to get you into the Big Bad World of Real Books...and publish your book through this new press.

Self-publish, that is. As in, pay her to do the publication for you.

If I've never said it before on this blog, it bears saying here: the fundamental principle of publishing is MONEY GOES TO THE AUTHOR. NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

Please understand, self-publishing is not inherently evil. Some books start out self-published and then are picked up by regular publishers after they've proven to sell. (Self-publishers are quick to trot out those titles, so with a little research, you'll find them.) And many books are self-published for good reasons. A very happy self-published author I know said, "Hey, I've got the money, I just want the thrill of having real books in my hands, my friends and neighbors all buy these, we have a good time. I'm happy."

For him, self-publishing works. He spends an average of $1500 per book to get the things out there--ridiculously steep in terms of anyone thinking of actually supporting themselves by writing, in any degree--but he's retired, he has the cash and nothing else he'd rather spend it on, so God bless him.

Another book I'm familiar with is a good example of another great use of self-publishing. The author probably had a good idea his target audience--primarily college baseball players!-- wouldn't necessarily be a large enough market segment for a major publisher to want to take on his book. I've read parts of the book. It's well written, it's an accurate portrayal of what college baseball is about, and I get a kick out of it because it's focused on the University of Michigan Baseball team as it was composed when my son was a member of said team. (My son even is a character in the book, albeit fictionalized and disguised, as are the other teammates of this particular author. Gotta love it.)

For that type of use, for that focus, self-publishing is a perfect solution. But for the rest of us? Not so much. At least not if we have a dream of being paid for our work, even if that payment is small.
Or if we have a dream of establishing a readership in any meaningful channels.
Or if we have a hope of being considered worth investing in for a major (or even minor) publisher someday.

Because if we have dreams and hopes of being published by a major house, paid anything at all, or having our books actually available for our friends and neighbors to buy--without having to sell them literally out of our garages--we definitely should not go the self-publishing route.Because, contrary to the claims on most of these sites, it's not easier to do the self-pub route; it's harder.

Most self-publishers will charge you more for actually editing the book.
Many of them have steep art charges if you don't have a cover designed yourself.
Many of them have small staffs with very limited resources, so if you need something done or redone quickly, it just isn't going to happen.
But the biggest drawback to self-publishing, by far, is the lack of distribution channels.

You see, it's not getting the book published that gets your name out into the marketplace. It's getting the book read. And bought.

Which means, your success as a published author isn't contingent on what it costs to print the book, or even what it costs you to get a cover made, to correct errors, and to get it bound attractively and legibly. Your success as a published author strictly depends on whether you can get your books into bookstores. Or whether people can order copies of your book through online or other channels. Or both. And that's where the self-publishing promises break down.

Self-published authors too often learn after the fact, and to their pain, that a promise that their book will be "available" for sale through Barnes &Noble, or Borders, or Books A Million...doesn't mean the book will actually be on the shelves. Most of the time, the book will not be there. The great majority of the time, the book will not even be listed in the computer systems of these bookstores. And if it ain't in the computer, boys and girls, you average bookstore clerk isn't going to be able to order it for you.

So in reality, while your book may be "available" to these places, it's not going to be ordered by them. If it's not ordered, in reality, it's not there. And won't be, because the great majority of self-publishing outlets have no network of distributors. They have no distribution channels in place. Most of them don't even have contacts in the industry that they can then tap and say, "Hey, I've got 20 great novels for you to take into the marketplace."

Which means you have no means of getting the book into the hands of readers.
Which means you will, in essence, have no readers...unless you do all the distribution yourself.

Some authors have tried a variation on this, by the way. There are "drive by" authors out there who'll do things like place their book on bookstore shelves. Just put it there. Some of them have even told tales of getting their books "put into" the computer systems at major bookstores that way, because the clerks don't know any better, just assume the book wasn't listed in error, and put all the ISBN information, etc., into their databases.

On the surface, this sounds pretty clever. A little guerilla marketing, as it were. Forcing them to acknowledge the book exists, and then giving them the means to reorder it.
The only problem is, that doesn't work.
Oh, a few authors may have had this actually turn in their favor. But then they went online and spread the word that "all you have to do is..." and a lot more people started trying to do this. Bookstores got wise to it. Clerks got wise to it. And those books got, respectfully, tossed.

They didn't get bought. They didn't get inventoried. They most certainly didn't get put into the databases. What's worse, the authors and their publishers were flagged for later reference...and not in a nice way, either.

So where's the win here? Answer? There isn't one. Your literal only alternative as a self-published author is to sell the books yourself.
If you have a speaking platform, this is a little easier. If you're affiliated with a university, this sometimes is easier (although don't try it without asking, because if anything, universities are even pricklier than major bookstores when it comes to "contraband"--i.e., something published other than via a university press!-- coming from one of their own). If you are like that guy in the video with the FREE HUGS sign, and you have no problem approaching complete strangers by the hundreds with books in your hand and a pitch on your lips, then maybe self-publishing, and its associated self-distribution, is for you.

But for most of us? Again, not so much.
Not even because most writers tend to be introverts, which is reason enough for most of us to crawl under our desks in the fetal position at the very thought of "marketing" and "distribution" like that....but also because, let's face it. Traveling the world to distribute a self-published book can get...shall we say...a little pricey. As in expensive. As in, expenses you may or may not ever recover from book sales, and probably won't.

So the moral of the story? If you have cash to spend, don't mind how you spend it, and don't care if you ever sell beyond 40 copies to your sisters and your cousins and your aunts...and you're fed up with the cycle of writing, revising, submitting, getting rejected, resubmitting, revising and re-revising, tinkering, pitching, etc., etc., etc...self-publishing may be the way you want to go with a novel. Otherwise, you'll want to refer back to the basic principle of the publishing industry--money goes to the author--and play the game in such a way that someone's willing to take your work and pay you for it.

Because that same someone will also make sure the book comes out with no misspellings in it (up to and including your name), has a cover that doesn't repel a reader, and has all the pages included, right-side up and in the proper order.
Because that same someone will have an editor who will (if you're fortunate) improve the book for you and make it sing, someone who knows what you're trying to say and helps you say it better.
And most of all, because that someone actually knows how to get those books into the marketplace so readers can read them, and love them, and recommend them to all their sisters and their cousins and their aunts.

Why? Because that someone will have already invested money in the operation, and they want to at least recoup some of that money. So they'll make it their business to at least do a minimum amount of publicity, and pitching their distributors, so they can make that happen...or they won't stay in business long.

Take the high road, folks. It's better for all of us in the long run.

My take,
Janny

10 comments:

Donna Alice said...

bYes, I'm with you on the lack of Catholic publishers out there. My story is a bit different because the first book I sold (only one so far---LOL!) is a children's mystery and a small Catholic publisher was glad to get it. Apparently, good mysteries for children are hard to find and the market is wide open.

I know it's not going to be so easy to find someone willing to take my adult book. That's why I'm aiming for a secular publisher and NOT the self-publishing route. I'd never have the money for that even if it seemed "right."

To me, self-publishing doesn't feel like being a real writer. It's like those vanity places where you submit a poem, it's published and then you are given an opportunity to spend $45. to see it in print. Not for me.

Termagant 2 said...

And this has WHAT to do with football??

I looked at the linked website. Not ready for prime time even as a subsidy publisher, IMO. I've seen better organized riots.

T2

With Hammer And Tong...The LetterShaper said...

As a poet, and an avid reader, I have to say that I very much enjoyed my leisurely stroll through your blog...it was time well spent; entertaining and enlightening. I thank you...

Anonymous said...

Janny,

I was sorry to hear that you feel I will not offer much more than typical "self-publishing" companies. In fact, Bezalel is truly a hybrid between a company that will publish anything you write and a traditional company that won't even take your call. My price of $775 actually includes a lot of work with the author, again something that would cost extra at other self-publishers. Also, if you have a chance to visit my website, www.BezalelBooks.com, you will see the many ways that I am getting the word out about my own work and that of Bezalel's. Again, something that a typical self-publisher wouldn't think of doing with extra charges. All in all, I would ask that you be cautious in what you say about my company until you have had first hand experience, which I believe you would find pleasant.

Blessings to you.
Cheryl Dickow

Janny said...

Cheryl-

First of all, I am flabbergasted that you post under "anonymous" and then sign your name. :-) Do you not have a presence in the blogosphere, then?

Second, while I don't mean to paint your press with a negative brush, there are many, many reasons why I don't believe you will offer substantially more than a normal self-publishing outlet will. You seem to have the impression I didn't visit your website and read what you had to offer. I did, in fact, do that, several times. My conclusions:

1. The website/promo material/explanation of the new publishing venture is, in itself, poorly written. That's one red flag right there.

2. While there are many positives to having every bit of a contract negotiable, you then have this interesting phrase in the context:

As an independent Catholic publishing company, Bezalel works very closely with authors from start to finish and each contract is negotiated to satisfy both the author and Bezalel. Agreeable terms that cannot be reached indicate an incompatibility and are best left unfilled.

...which means WHAT, exactly? That you cross those things out? That you delete them from the contract? That you opt not to go to contract in the first place? (See criticism #1. An unintelligible explanation on a publishing web site is a bad, bad sign.)

3. Your mission is admirable, and your grounds for starting this publishing venture are good. However, when you back up your reasons for starting a venture with tired and partially false arguments, that's another red flag. Cases in point...

--You make the assertion that there are editors/agents out there who take fees for reading work and then do nothing about it. That, in itself, is true...however, your text implies that that's how publishing normally WORKS, when exactly the opposite is true. Those people aren't legit editors or agents; they're scam artists. That's not SOP in the industry, at least not among legitimate publishing outlets. So for you to imply that you offer something better because this is what authors are up against...is either just plain ignorant, or just plain irresponsible.

--You mention that getting agent representation doesn't guarantee that a book will see print, or if it does, the author might well make no money at all after the "obligations" are paid. While it's true that getting agented doesn't guarantee anything, once a legitimate agent sells that book, they take at most a 20% commission and some incidental expenses. That means there should be plenty left after "obligations" are paid--IF the agent is any good! So for you to imply that authors who go the normal publishing route are losing money in the process of GETTING published is, once again, either totally ignorant or totally irresponsible. Either way, it doesn't give your site, or your venture, credibility.

--Your mention of the term "traditional" publishing is, nowadays, a red flag in itself. There's no such terminology in the industry as "traditional" publishing. No one uses it. No one would know what it meant if they did. :-) In fact, nowadays, it's considered one of the biggest signs that a site/publisher/agent is a scam, or at best, borderline incompetent.

So do you really want to portray yourself with the same catch phrases, tired arguments, and half-truths that scam artists use? I would hardly think so. A little research--so that you could avoid these pitfalls and these "catch phrases" that now signal bad stuff!--would have gone a long way toward leaving me with a more favorable impression.

4. You list no distribution channels at all for these works. No mention of Ingrams. Or Levy's. Or Baker and Taylor. No mention even of a private method of distribution. So my criticism of that lack in self-publishing ventures...also applies here.

No, having my book available at your speaking engagements doesn't count as "marketing and distribution." It's tough enough to sell books when the speaker's also the author of the books on the table; expecting people to buy someone else's book at my speaking engagement is stretching things way too far. If it happens, it's extremely good fortune. Odds are, it won't.

And that doesn't even take into account whether I would want someone else in effect representing my book in public--someone with whom I've had no previous contact. I don't know what kind of speaker you are. I don't know what your topics are. I don't know if I'd even want to be on that table. So offering to promote my book at that point only opens the door for a whole lot more questions, and is not necessarily a selling point!

Now, if you offered a speaker booking service as part of your operation...that would be innovative. But this isn't it. Hence, another red flag.

5. Offering an excerpt of one of your new books is always a good thing to entice people to see more; so I took a gander at Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage...and saw a story that started with passive writing and went into a back-story dump, all accomplished through a cliched beginning that most of us have been taught to eschew long ago (the woman traveling to a destination and thinking about what got her there). Quite frankly, I got tired of waiting for the story to start, and I bailed out after a few pages. An agent or editor wouldn't have even given it as much time as I did.

In other words, it's substandard work...which only reinforces another stereotype of the self-publishing industry, that people only go that route who can't sell anywhere else--because their work is just not up to snuff.

Like cliches, unfortunately, stereotypes tend to evolve because, in a large number of cases, they're true. So seeing this low quality in a soon-to-be-released book is, unfortunately, another red flag.

I applaud your intent and your mission. It has all the potential of being a solid project that many of us can get behind--eventually--but not as it currently stands. The general impression I get of Bezalel is "not ready for prime time" at any price...and so I would caution people to look carefully, compare, shop around, and know exactly what they're getting into before they go with your (or any other self-publishing) company.

Respectfully,
Janny

Anonymous said...

Sure - probably better to call you at a MINIMUM of $50/hour. Professionals don't trash people or their competitors. You have an obvious conflict of interest here. You're a joke.

Janny said...

Ah, yes. When you can't dispute the facts, resort to name-calling. Yeah, that's professional.

For the record--no one's trashing anybody. Remarking about potential pitfalls in a venture isn't trashing it. And there's no "conflict of interest" involved here in the slightest...just an evaluation based on what I see. Based on what I see, while this is no worse than many self-publishing opportunities, it certainly appears no better.

And so...author beware.

Janny

Janny said...

T2-

Football? :-)

T1

Janny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Termagant 2 said...

Of course, football!

And, anonymous, or Cheryl, or whatever your name is -- I'm a pubbed author with no personal axe to grind for or against vanity presses, small presses, or any other kind of presses. Excepting possibly one, but I won't go there...

I went to your web site because I was curious. I found a mess. I couldn't navigate it (maybe it's my browser's fault?), there was no coherent information on it, and I bailed.

If you mean to be taken seriously, have it professionally re-designed. And as a business plan, you'll have to differentiate your business, you know, from all the other subsidy/vanity presses out there.

Start with a distribution channel, or preferably more than one. Use names we know. Tell us our books are going to sell in XYZ brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Then put your info out again.

And don't forget to root for the Chicago Bears.

T2